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Project Based Learning transforms classrooms

Districts incorporating PBL seeing increased student engagement, problem solving

Project Based Learning

Over the past year, the Tulare County Office of Education has extensively supported Project Based Learning instruction through professional development trainings and the dedicated coaching work of Joy Soares, the Project Based Learning curriculum specialist with Educational Resource Services (ERS). "We have made a significant commitment to furthering the use of Project Based Learning," says County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak. "In this age of Common Core Standards, we believe PBL is the tool to bring students the 21st century learning skills they need to be successful in college and in their careers."

Joy Soares joined Educational Resource Services in January 2013. She is a national certified trainer through the Buck Institute for Education, a non-profit organization that creates, gathers, and shares high-quality PBL instructional practices. Mrs. Soares is also a trainer with Linked Learning, a statewide initiative that TCOE and mentor district Porterville Unified co-lead in Tulare and Kings counties. The initiative seeks to implement career-themed partnerships to provide students with real-world career experiences while they are still in high school.

"The structured process of Project Based Learning is providing Tulare County teachers with an approach that will ensure students are learning rigorous academic standards, and developing the important career and college skills of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking," says Mrs. Soares. "At its core, PBL is designed to make learning experiences extremely relevant to students. Seeing the students throughout our county taking charge of their own learning has been an exciting outcome."

Project Based Learning

Across the county, teachers are using PBL to transform the way that students learn. Teachers who have implemented the instructional method mention over and over that through PBL lessons their students are engaged, excited, thinking critically, solving problems and collaborating with their classmates. "Students who usually 'fly under the radar' are engaged and learning at deeper levels through teamwork in PBL settings," says Visalia Technical Early College High School (VTEC) Principal Vicki Porter.

Robin Ryburn, a biology teacher at Tulare Union High School, describes a project she has done for years with her sophomore students. In the past, she says that students have been assigned to make a report on specific biologic processes related to cell biology or human physiology. This year, with training she received through the Tulare County Office of Education on Project Based Learning (PBL), Ms. Ryburn turned the assignment into a project with surprising results. Students were required to develop a children's storybook about the same material. They could choose from topics such as cellular transport, photosynthesis and cellular respiration, or they could focus on the body's nervous, digestion or respiration systems.

This exercise didn't just stay in her classroom. Ms. Ryburn arranged for her students to present their storybooks to a live audience - third-graders from neighboring Wilson Elementary. Initially, the Tulare Union students were apprehensive about writing and illustrating a science-based story that would appeal to a third-grade audience. Ms. Ryburn reports that they rose to the challenge. "The projects were 100 times better than in years past," she says. "Because my students had an authentic audience with the third-graders, it allowed them to move beyond regurgitating facts to me to really understanding their topic and creating a story that a child would understand."

The PBL projects teachers are using in all subject matters vary widely. At Liberty School District in Tulare, students have launched a debate on the merits of instituting a school uniform. Teacher Amy Scofield says, "I was blown away by the discussions happening in the student groups and seeing the life skills that were being developed right here in the classroom - healthy debate, presentation and genuine assessment. It is more work to develop the PBL lessons at first, and it is a little hard to let go and let the students take charge of their learning, but the rewards of seeing them do so are incredible!"

Robin Ryburn's biology storybook project wasn't an isolated PBL incident at Tulare Union High School. The entire Science Department is in the process of integrating PBL throughout its courses. Daniel Dutto reports that his Integrated Science students have been participating in the design of a pedestrian bridge with the involvement of City of Tulare engineers and an architect from Visalia.

Sycamore Valley Academy, an independent charter of Visalia Unified, is also using PBL extensively. Fourth-grade students Cadence, Holden and Alissa described their work on a PBL-based assignment on local Native Americans in terms of teamwork and collaboration. The teamwork was so successful, it inspired Alissa to do further research, while Cadence enjoyed the way that the group figured out their strengths in contributing to the project. Principal/Superintendent Ruth Dutton says, "The PBL process is so respectful of student curiosity. It also affords a high level of tolerance for risk-taking, while helping students to develop socially and emotionally."

At VTEC, a charter high school of Visalia Unified, Principal Porter says that, "PBL provides the structure we were looking for. Teachers see how it addresses the standards, that it adds vigor to their lessons and increases student knowledge and critical thinking."

Project Based Learning

Last fall, the school, which is located on the former site of the COS Farm, invited horticulturalists from Monrovia Nursery Company to help students develop a plant cataloguing project. Students have been working through their plant science and marketing classes to identify all the plants in the school's existing arboretum. Over the course of several months, the class hopes to catalog the plants and create identity markers with a scan-able code linking visitors to a website with information on the plant and its care. "Meeting the horticulturalists from Monrovia changed everything," says student Jose Servin, who is a member of the school's agriculture cohort. "It became real for me - a career that I would like to pursue." Jose says that he enjoys VTEC's PBL focus because he feels it gives him a sense of accomplishment and progress. "I've learned so much and at the end of the day, I don't want to go home," he laughs.

Mrs. Soares reports that a PBL resource page will be added to the popular TCOE Common Core Connect website ( in April, along with the launch of TCOE's pblCORE, a series of trainings to support 21st century learning. On May 14, ERS will hold its first annual PBL-focused event entitled "A Night at the 21st Century Museum" (see sidebar below).

For more information on Project Based Learning and future trainings, call Joy Soares at (559) 651-0501, or email

A Night at the 21st Century Museum
May 14, 2014, 5:00 - 8:00 p.m.
Heritage Complex and Farm Equipment Museum, 4500 S. Laspina, Tulare

This event is an opportunity for schools to showcase students' exemplary Project Based Learning (PBL) experiences by providing a forum for students to present their work and receive feedback from an appreciative public audience!

Teachers and students are encouraged to submit high-caliber projects from all content areas. Presentation modes may include live performances, displays, digital media and any other creative and unique way to demonstrate 21st Century Learning and/or communicate an innovation or solution to a problem.

Museum patrons will experience how Common Core State Standards implementation is transforming learning and teaching in a rigorous and relevant way.

For registration information, call Joy Soares at (559) 651-0501, or email

Photos above:
~ Garrett Churich, a student at Visalia Technical Early College High School (VTEC) is involved in a Project Based Learning (PBL) assignment to document the plants within the schools gardens and arboretum.
~ Students from Sycamore Valley Academy share their PBL experiences with Educational Resource Services' Joy Soares (far right). Sycamore Valley teachers Jennifer Denham and Kevin Breakstone led the development of the students' PBL lessons.
~ Monrovia Nursery's Orlando Bejar leads students on a tour of VTEC's arboretum, which was developed over many years by the College of the Sequoias agricultural programs. VTEC is one of the county's leading proponents of Project Based Learning. The VTEC students are documenting the plants in the garden and developing a website describing the characteristics and care of each.