Darrow School students learning to 'think outside the box'

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NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — At Darrow School, teachers are pushing themselves and their students to think outside the box diorama and confines of a poster board when it comes to working on class projects.

Raleigh Werberger, Darrow's dean of faculty and a teacher of history and humanities, has dedicated his recent years in teaching to exploring a field called "project-based learning." More than just a project created at the end of a lesson to show what a student has learned, project-based learning takes an active and dynamic approach, developing over time. It starts with presenting students a real-world problem then asking them to take ownership in it through research, testing theories, designing solutions, and taking other forms of hands-on learning.

Before coming to Darrow two years ago, Werberger's previous students have been asked to create tabletop aquaponics kits — plant systems supported by fish and their waste — and pitch them as entrepreneurs, "Shark Tank" style. He enlisted a theater teacher to help coach students on their pitches, and the kids tracked down examples and visited aquaponic farms.

Last year, his Darrow students were asked to deconstruct and recreate a McDonald's Happy Meal entirely from scratch, from farming the vegetables, baking the bread, raising and slaughtering livestock, and manufacturing the packaging. They called it the "Unhappy Meal" project. Werberger wrote a blog post on the project, which turned into his just-released book, "From Project-Based Learning to Artistic Thinking: Lessons Learned from Creating an Unhappy Meal" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).

The intent, Werberger says, was "to create a curriculum that would cross disciplines with science and social studies, provide opportunities for independent research, and teach students about the realities behind how the world feeds itself."

He said he hopes the book will offer a real-time look into the approach, open up the process to others and "remove the box on project-based learning."

The key to successfully embracing this is to use the approach widely with others, to not have specific expectations on outcomes, and to expect frustrations and failures along the way.

Currently Werberger's collaborating with Darrow environmental science and field ecology teacher, Caleb Corliss, to guide students through a project on processing food waste by having the teenagers research and design, build, and market to the public small vermicomposting bins fueled by food-composting red wiggler worms. The students are working in small groups composed like a professional design team, each one having a designer, a builder, a contractor and a marketer.

"I thought it was a bit challenging because I've never done that before," said freshman Lenny Lin. But since starting the project this fall, he's grown to appreciate and understand the applications of the approach.

"In actual life we're going to have to do something, not just write what we're going to do on paper," said Lin. "To learn to build is good for us in real life because sometime we might need to fix something and need to understand how things work."

Lukeus Gore is a sophomore and a builder for the project, who has had to yield to various design changes from an initial prototype. "This is definitely different but I'm excited to be building it," he said.

Freshman Logan Hallock, a marketer, will have to pitch his group's project at a local farmer's market this spring. "I'm not sure how they'll think about it, but I'm excited to see how they like it," he said.


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