The Measles Outbreak at Emory—and the Power of Project-Based Learning
Earlier this spring, I spent a weekend in Atlanta visiting my sister and nieces. Knowing my sister, I was sure that the weekend would be chock full of activities and that she’d find ways to sneak in a couple of learning opportunities for my nieces. This particular weekend was no different, and on Saturday, we traveled to Emory University to participate in an event called the Outbreak Game.
Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Out of Hand Theater collaborated to develop the program as part of the Atlanta Science Festival. Participating teams were charged with investigating a mock outbreak on Emory’s campus using real-world tools employed by CDC and Emory scientists. The four of us would be participating as a team that my sister had named the “Nascent Nerds,” much to the embarrassment of my nieces.
Upon arrival, each team received a packet that included background research, protective gear (mask, glove, smock), instructions for the game, and a campus map. The game kicked off on the Emory Quad with a mock press conference where we were provided additional background information about the outbreak and a walkthrough of the task at hand—study the environment, interview patients, test samples, investigate vaccine and drug development, and get to the bottom of this mysterious outbreak—who was patient zero and what was the virus?
In total, there were six activities spread out across campus–starting off in the lobby of a science building where we interviewed patients, marking down whether or not they were experiencing symptoms, what buildings they had visited, and whether or not they had been vaccinated. We then went upstairs to a chemistry lab where my nieces got to test samples for the virus. After confirming the identity of patient zero, we left the lab to solve a puzzle regarding receptors and drug (keys) followed by another puzzle on how vaccinations protect populations. Each activity took us to a different part of the campus and each answer brought us one step closer to solving the overall puzzle that would help us identify the virus causing the outbreak. Sure, not exactly CDC protocol for identifying a virus, but a clever structure to try and simulate what we know is a very complicated process.
The “Nascent Nerds” didn’t come in first place—in fact we didn’t really even place—but somehow everyone knew that wasn’t the point. We had spent the afternoon working as a team, using the scientific method to collect data and investigate hypotheses, and as an added bonus, my older niece (and soon-to-be high school freshman) got an insider look at a fantastic university. As we drove home, I reflected on just how incredible the day was and how lucky my nieces were to have my sister, who viewed participating in the Outbreak Game as if it were a typical Saturday afternoon activity.
Just down the road from Emory is The Lovett School, an independent, coeducational K-12 day school where a former college classmate and dear friend of mine, Marsha Little, serves as Assistant Head of School. At Lovett, project-based learning is quickly becoming an institutional norm, and cross-divisional collaboration happens regularly. I remember Marsha describing a recent example earlier this spring:
My stroll through the Lower School this afternoon revealed ninth-grade Spanish students working with fourth-grade Spanish students on a project—to define the qualities of a global citizen—and senior AP Art History students creating Matisse-like art with kindergartners.
Across the country, in Ft. Collins, Colorado, another niece and nephew began attending Preston STEM Middle School this past year, where both are fully immersed in STEM curriculum and cross-curricular activities. It’s just part of their typical day.
Unfortunately, learning experiences like these aren’t always easy to come by and aren’t automatically a guaranteed component of a typical K-12 experience. Employing project-based learning takes planning and frankly, it takes a brave instructional leader to institutionalize it as best practice amidst all the other competing priorities and accountability requirements facing educators today.
No matter how you feel about Common Core, the Maker Movement, or STEM schools in general, it’s hard to argue that inquiry-led, project-based activities aren’t incredibly beneficial to student learning. Students who are comfortable working in teams, employing critical-thinking skills, and tackling complex problems are just better prepared to succeed in college and future careers, even if they don’t major in science.
As I flew home from Atlanta later that weekend, I got to thinking. How can we make it easier for principals and teachers to find ways to introduce project-based learning activities into the classroom? How do we ease the fear and misconceptions that go into getting started? Emory and the CDC invested real time and resources to produce a tightly orchestrated day with actors and access to scientific labs. How do we help educators get started with potentially fewer resources and more limited time to plan?
Start Small, Just Start
If you’re part of a STEM-designated school or have (or are) a brave instructional leader like Marsha, who rewards cross-functional collaboration, you’ve likely been experimenting with project-based learning for some time. But for everyone else, the prospect of where to get started can be so overwhelming that it to stops any initiative before it begins.
Five years ago, I remember sitting in my first “STEM-focused PD session” with my colleague, Jessica Bianculli, at the annual ASCD Conference in San Francisco. We had been asked by some of our school partners for professional development support around STEM and inquiry-based learning, but didn’t know where to begin. How could we possibly support teachers if our presenters weren’t engineers? What if the participating teachers weren’t science or math-oriented? And how were we going to get access to robots?
Much to our surprise, the ASCD presenter walked through low-tech, cross-curricular, sample activities she had tried with her students, as well as images of the organized chaos (and joy) her students created, and the immeasurable benefits it had across the school—even though there wasn’t a single robot in any of the pictures she shared. The most profound advice she gave us that day was this: “It’s perfectly okay to smart small; sometimes you have to just start .”
Don’t Worry That Something Might Go Wrong; Assume It Will
One of the scariest aspects of taking on any sort of project-based learning activity is the fear that something will go wrong. I’ll concede there is some truth to that—the more complexity you add to an activity, the more room for misinterpretation and, frankly, things not working out as planned. Period.
That said, in the same way we ask students to use inquiry and creative problem solving when they get stuck, so too do we need to employ these skills as adult educators. We need to embrace uncertainty and get more comfortable improvising. Just remember, little things don’t have to be a big deal. If you forget to bring some of the materials you needed for an activity one day, improvise and use something else. If your students take the activity in a completely different direction, run with it; you may even end up with a more interesting outcome.
During the Outbreak Game at Emory, patient zero’s full name was “Estelle” and you needed to spell out her full name to solve the final puzzle correctly. However, when my nieces (and all the other participants) conducted the mock patient interviews, “Estelle” the actor insisted her name was “Estee,” leading everyone to select another name and potentially ruin the entire, tightly orchestrated event. After the first couple teams returned with a wrong answer, the issue became clear and the judges addressed it by giving everyone another guess at patient zero knowing that the misspelling would have unfairly penalized teams. Not a big deal; the game wasn’t ruined—just a little on-the-spot improvisation.
It’s Okay if Students Struggle
One of the most interesting phenomena I observed during the Outbreak Game was how parents reacted to their students’ struggling. Not surprisingly, given the nature of the activity, the event had attracted families ranging from full-on helicopter parents to supportive moms and dads (and aunts!) just trying to be helpful. The challenge for parents—and the challenge for educators in general—is finding the right balance between solving the problem for their students and hanging back just enough so students know they’re supported but also empowered to work though the challenge on their own. This can be particularly challenging when it comes to project-based learning activities.
Even in my role as “supportive aunt,” I caught myself wanting to answer questions or correct missteps for my nieces during the Outbreak Game. But in reality, the struggle—and the resulting inquiry it created—was all part of the learning experience. I remember walking into one activity in particular that was designed to explore the role of vaccinations on a population. It was fairly obvious from the instructions and worksheet we’d been handed that we were supposed to fill in a bubble grid with green and red markers—and that the resulting color patterns would reveal that vaccines prevent viruses from spreading.
My younger niece was next up to lead this activity for our team. Knowing we were already a couple hours into the game and most of the teams had already finished, there was a temptation to offer to fill in the bubbles for her or even just skip the bubble activity altogether and try to answer the puzzle question without completing the activity. Luckily, we didn’t. As my niece carefully read the directions and then slowly worked through which bubbles to fill in with which colors, an interesting visual started to appear. She studied it carefully for some time and finally commented: “With the first grid, it looks like the vaccine has created a wall to prevent people from getting infected with the virus. With the next grid, there was no vaccine—and no wall—so people got sick.” That was exactly right. She had just explained the role of vaccines more effectively than any science teacher or book ever had for me. We just needed to give her the time to work through it.
Extra Scaffolding is Okay; Just Try to be Purposeful in How You Chose to Use—or Omit–It
There are no hard and fast rules about how you set up a project-based learning activity. Depending on the goal and the audience, you may or may not want to add some additional scaffolding supports. This can be particularly important if you have a classroom with mixed abilities—to make things a little easier or a little harder. These scaffolds can provide a quiet way, behind the scenes, to level the playing field and ensure everyone maximizes learning and finishes at about the same time.
During the Outbreak Game, every team was provided a map and there were guides scattered along the course to help us if we got lost, but also to provide reminders about the rules of play. For example, one set of guides served the dual purpose of clarifying what building we were at, but also reminding us that we were entering a building with “infected patients” and we were required to wear our gloves and masks. A purposeful design choice so that students and parents unfamiliar with the campus wouldn’t be penalized, while also keeping the game as realistic as possible.
Just remember, every piece of guidance (or lack thereof) is a choice and will affect the experience. Assess your audience and then make some calls about what you want the “learning” to focus on. Hard core (no scaffolds, limited guidance) is okay, but activities don’t need to be hard core to provide an effective learning experience. Just be purposeful on what you’re making decisions on and what you’re leaving “open” for students to figure out. You’d be surprised how much students will figure it out. (Parents may be flustered—“The Outbreak Game would have been great if we had been given more explicit instructions”—but remember, they’re not your audience.)
You should also be mindful of your environment. Emory was very generous and let us roam the campus freely. You may work in a school environment where students are not allowed to wander the hallways. That doesn’t mean project-based learning can’t take place; you just may want to focus on in-classroom activities to start or coordinate with any scheduled outdoor time. Be smart about safety, and if your activity does include exiting the classroom or school, make sure to cover off colleagues and security as needed well in advance.
As you close out the current school year, there’s no better time to reflect and think about potential opportunities to introduce project-based activities into your lesson plans for next year. My colleague, Jessica Bianculli, who leads our STEM professional development practice at Catapult Learning, recently wrote a blog on questions to ask as you’re thinking about taking on inquiry-based learning that I’d encourage you to read (Ready for Inquiry? Take This Quiz to Find Out!) and she also hosted a webinar on STEM worth watching (STEM and the Common Core).
Remember, it’s perfectly okay to start small; just start! Start incorporating more inquiry-led discussion in your classroom, encourage your students to critically exam problems, and start replacing some of the direct instruction-style lectures with a small group activity. As you get more comfortable, think about introducing more activities and collaborating with other teachers within or across —and potentially across grades.
I’d love to hear about your experiences, so please send your stories and pictures!