The Power of Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning re-emerged as a leading theory for education over half a century ago.   The foundation for this methodology is based on students asking a question or being posed a question, and being encouraged to discover the answers on their own.  Rarely is there one “right” answer or textbook driven instruction. Instead, students are encouraged to be open-minded, explore and demonstrate what they are learning.  Effective Project Based Learning at an elementary school level is evidenced by a thematic project that integrates multiple disciplines; students not only are encouraged to explore but also learn from one another.  Most importantly, project based learning is about applying the learning.

Cold Spring Elementary School District has effectively implemented an integrated project based learning model across all subject areas that is an example for the rest of Santa Barbara County and the State of California.  This small school district, nestled in the foothills of Santa Barbara, was recently recognized as one of 11 school districts in California that received the prestigious 2020 Exemplary Arts in Education School.  A recent Cold Spring Elementary School District integrated project illustrates the strength of project based learning.  Recently, the Fourth and Fifth grades undertook an integrated project regarding animal structures and the hydrosphere.  The objective was to teach the critical standards related to Science, Mathematics, Visual Arts, Music, English Language Arts, and Technology.

First, questions were posed to students across multiple grades.   The STEAM Teacher, Dr. Jean Gradias, asked students, “How do internal and external animal structures support survival, growth, behavior and reproduction?  How does the hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere affect the Earth’s surface and processes?”  

The end result is a beautiful multimedia fish mural prominently displayed at the entrance of the school.  QR codes encased on each side of the mural provide immediate access to fun videos created by each student about unique species of marine life that inhabit our coastline, and how their internal and external structures and functions help it to survive in its unique environment.   In fifth grade, the videos are about the hydrosphere, and ways humans have impacted Earth’s streams, rivers, and oceans.  Those students then identified ways to reduce or repair the human impact on the environment and focused on the benefits of protecting Earth’s resources and environment.  The videos created in iMovie are aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

During remote learning, the fish were sent home to each individual Fourth and Fifth grade student to be painted during Mrs. O'Neill’s art class, integrating lessons on color theory, value, and pattern. The students worked in small groups (each assigned a set of analogous colors) to align their  fish to ultimately create a rainbow effect through the “school of fish”. The students explored the process of 3D mural building starting with discussing how the laser cutter was used to cut a fish shape that creates a tessellation when placed together. These lessons not only covered the visual arts standards but instilled the value of teamwork and collaboration while supporting social and emotional learning through individual creativity.

Cold Spring students used their technology skills to research, communicate and present their learning and ideas.  Students learned how to record video clips to embed in iMovie, and edit and trim audio and visual elements to create a cohesive presentation.  Through the process of recording, students learned how to listen to their own voices for clarity and re-record themselves when necessary to improve their story telling.  The school integrated a music lesson with Ms. DiSalvo on how to compose original soundtracks in SoundTrap and incorporate them into the background music for their movies. 

In the coup de gras, the lessons were all integrated into the core curriculum, including the English Language Arts standard of reading informational texts, conducting research, sentence and paragraph structure, as well as speaking and listening skills.  Students learned to use a variety of software, including iMovie, Screencastify and SoundTrap.

The lessons are entirely designed by the incredible collaboration between the classroom teacher and the specialist teachers (STEAM, Art, Technology and Music) at Cold Spring School. Dr. Amy Alzina, the Superintendent and Principal of the Cold Spring Elementary School District implemented a similar program at Adams Elementary School when she was a Principal and Acting Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education; “Project Based Learning creates a learning environment where students are excited about learning and are ultimately better prepared for high school, college and the workplace.  It provides an incredible opportunity to individualize instruction and use a “whole-child” approach to learning.”

Cold Spring School has collaborated with other schools across the State and has supported other elementary schools in Santa Barbara County with the implementation of multidisciplinary integrated project-based learning.  Over the years, the school has extended its program to students at the neighboring Cleveland Elementary, Santa Barbara Unified School District, as a form of district-to-district collaboration. 

The Mural is available to the public during the week after 3:30 PM and all weekend.  Cold Spring Families and the greater Santa Barbara community are invited to view and interact with the beautiful fish mural for the remainder of the school year.


Click on the YouTube link to hear directly from the students about their experiences with Specialist Program: https://youtu.be/mWmnNb1Xo9w