Posted: October 14, 2016

As you may have heard, we are launching a new Project-Based-Learning (PBL) middle school program for Camas students in the fall of 2016!  While we are still working on the details and in the final stages of purchasing the facility, we are excited to invite you to learn more about this opportunity.

Why Project-Based-Learning?

The world we are preparing students for is far different than when we were in school. Our global economy is calling for employees who can collaborate, create, design, and problem-solve more than ever. If we wish to prepare a generation of students who can solve real-world problems, we must give them real world problems to solve.  If we want to graduate students who can manage their time and collaborate with others, me must give them guidance and practice managing their time and collaborating with others.

Project Based Learning is an effective, meaningful, and enjoyable way to learn and to develop these skills for college, career, and life. In a PBL classroom, students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge. Projects address content standards through an integrated approach and focus on additional success skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and self-management. Here are some additional benefits to consider:

  • PBL makes school more engaging for students.  Projects provide real-world relevance for learning.  By providing a vision of an end product, PBL creates a context and reason to learn and understand the information and concepts. This is further enhanced through presentations for an audience beyond the school.
  • PBL builds success skills for college, career, and life.  Students learn how to take initiative and responsibility, solve problems, work in teams, and communicate ideas, thus increasing their confidence and transforming how they think of themselves as learners.
  • PBL helps address standards. The Common Core and other state standards emphasize real-world application of knowledge and skills, such as communicating in a variety of media, and speaking and presentation skills. PBL is an effective way to meet these goals.
  • PBL connects students and schools with communities and the real world.  Projects provide students with opportunities to interact with adults and organizations within their community.  They are exposed to workplaces, adult jobs, and can develop career interests.

Projects vs. PBL

Projects have been a recognized part of instruction for many decades.  In most classrooms, teachers cover topics with a combination of instructional approaches and then assign a project once the topics and skills have been covered.  Students often complete these projects on their own at home.  Projects are then displayed in the classroom and the unit culminates with an assessment emphasizing factual recall. In this example, the project was more of a “dessert.”

In PBL, projects are the “main course.”  In other words, students learn the material from completing the project, which has multiple products, assessments, and feedback along the way.  Consider the following brief project examples:

  • Design it Clean: In the Design It Clean project, students work in teams to develop water filters that are dependable, affordable, and can provide clean water for specific communities in the real world.
  • A Great Place to Visit: In this project, students have the opportunity to develop a walking tour of downtown. Teams identify community landmarks that should be included on the tour, research history surrounding those landmarks using primary and secondary resources, and communicate their findings by writing and recording a narrative that will guide their tour.  They will present their tours to the Chamber of Commerce.

Below is a comparison chart to further explore the differences between a traditional project and PBL:

Can be done at home without teacher guidance or team collaboration. Requires teacher guidance and team collaboration.
Can be outlined in detail on one piece of paper by the teacher. Includes many “need to knows” on the part of the student and teachers.
Are used year after year and usually focus on a product (make a mobile, a poster, a diorama, etc.) Is timely, complex, covers many standards and skills, and takes a team of teachers a significant amount of time to plan and implement.
The teacher work occurs mainly after the project is complete. The teacher work occurs mainly before the project starts.
The students do not have many opportunities to make choices at any point in the project. The students make most of the choices during the project within the pre-approved guidelines.
Are based upon directions and are done “like last year.” Is based upon Driving Questions that encompass every aspect of the learning that will occur and establishes the need to know.
Are often graded based on teacher perceptions that may or may not be explicitly shared with students. Is based on a clearly defined rubric made specifically for the project.
Are closed: every project has the same goal. Is open: students make choices that determine the outcome and path of the research.
Cannot be used in the real world to solve real problems. Could provide solutions in the real world to real problems even though they may not be implemented.
Are not particularly relevant to students’ lives. Is relevant to students’ lives or future lives.
Do not include scenarios and background information or are based on events that have already resolved. The scenario or simulation is real.  If fictitious, it is realistic, entertaining, and timely.
Are sometimes based around a tool for the sake of a tool rather than of an authentic question. (Make a Prezi, e.g.) Is presented to a public audience encompassing people from outside the classroom.

When addressing the misconception that PBL is the same as “making something,” “hands-on learning” or “doing an activity,” John Laramer from the Buck Institute of Education says:

“PBL is often focused on creating physical artifacts, but the artifacts are not as important as the intellectually challenging tasks that led to them. For example, it’s not truly PBL if students are simply making a collage about a story, constructing a model of the Egyptian pyramids, or analyzing water samples from a lake. These artifacts and activities could be part of a rigorous project if they help students meet a complex challenge and address a Driving Question. And not all “projects” involve creating a physical product. A broad definition of PBL includes projects in which students solve a complex problem and defend their solution in an oral presentation or in writing.”

Logistics for 2016-17

During its first year, our new middle school program will serve approximately 60 sixth and 60 seventh grade students. Students will work with a team of two teachers at each grade level and access Liberty and Skyridge for their electives, health/fitness, and extra-curricular activities. Transportation will be provided.  Enrollment will be open to all students in the Camas School District; there will not be a qualification process. If interest exceeds capacity, a lottery system will be employed.  After the first year, an eighth grade team will be added along with the potential for additional sixth and seventh grade teams.  Ultimately, we anticipate the program to be a fully self-contained autonomous school with approximately 400 students within 5 years, with many students likely choosing to attend our new project-based-learning high school set to open in the fall of 2018.

In regards to location, we are in the final stages of securing a property for the program. If all goes well, this will be an incredible investment for our community and a great opportunity for students and staff.  It will also help us address middle school capacity issues much sooner than waiting for our next bond cycle to build a new school at a significantly higher cost.  As it sits, the facility in question is essentially move-in ready to begin our pilot program.  In fact, we currently have a team of 6th graders helping us reimagine the space.  They have some very creative ideas!

*Note: If the purchase of the facility falls through for some reason, we will begin our PBL pilot program with a team at Liberty and Skyridge.

Additional thoughts

While PBL will be at the heart of our new program, we will also employ traditional instructional practices to ensure that our students are showing proficiency and progress on all of the same standards as their peers at Liberty and Skyridge. This will also include differentiation strategies to provide the proper level of support and challenge in the area of mathematics.

In addition, our new program will offer a unique opportunity to learn in a small and personalized learning environment.  Because of the nature of PBL and the size of our new program, our staff will get to know our young learners on many levels.  We are excited to develop relationships with our students and families and to involve them in creating a school community from the ground up.  On top of it all, we will get to work and learn in an innovative and inspiring space!

Please feel free to attend one of our information evenings listed below or to contact me directly with additional questions by phone at 360-335-3000 ext. 79139 or email at If you’re already on board, please fill out a Student Interest Form now! Interest forms are due by 3:00 p.m. on June 6.  We look forward to hearing from you!


Aaron J. Smith, Principal
Skyridge Middle School and PBL Pilot

Upcoming Project-Based-Learning information events:

Monday, May 23           Coffee Hour with Mr. Smith – Skyridge Middle School – 9:00 a.m.

Thursday, May 26          PBL Information Evening – Skyridge Middle School – 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, June 1       PBL Coffee Hour with Mr. Smith – Liberty Middle School – 9:00 a.m.