Education — The small school will explore ways to incorporate project-based learning concepts and practices into its daily curriculum

Newberg High School principal Eric Bergmann has been engaged in a longstanding conversation with the teachers about the future of Silver School, asking what will classroom instruction look like and what to hang their hat on as educators.

With that in mind, the school has received a $5,000 grant from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to investigate and, eventually, shift to a project-based learning (PBL) model.

Akin to the emphasis on hands-on learning found in the district’s continuing efforts to build 21st century skills and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, PBL places a similar focus on creating learning environments with real world applications and functional exercises so that students will retain, apply and adapt needed skills in all subjects.

A core assertion of PBL is what students do with what they learn is just as important as the subject matter itself.

“We need to put kids in a situation where they are not just learning content, but applying content and hopefully applying it in real world kind of ways,” Bergmann said. “At the heart of the concept resides the belief that learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum.”

Science teacher Luann Lee, who is nationally certified, took advantage of the resources available to her through the national certification organization to write the grant application. Bergman was quick to point out it was the teachers who initiated the conversation about the school’s future and identity.

Central to the discourse was the idea that with technology evolving at ever faster speeds, the school must do its best to prepare kids for a world that doesn’t yet exist.

“We have no idea what this country is going to look like in 12 years,” Bergman said. “Problems are going to be different, technology is going to be different. We need to prepare kids to be able to adapt and to apply what they’ve learned to new situations. PBL is an opportunity for us to do that.”

He pointed to a chemistry project Lee assigned last year in which she asked her students to analyze a byproduct of the paper-making process at the local mill and come up with creative ways to use the compound, for which the mill previously had no use.

The students found the byproduct’s chemical composition would make an alternative pot-hole filler and eventually patched up a few problem areas in the school’s north parking lot.

“They’ve learned their chemistry, but they’ve done it in a very engaging kind of way and they’ve done it in a way that is connected to a real-world problem,” Bergmann said. “From what I understand, engagement was off the charts.”

The grant will pay for materials and books, but more importantly, extra time after school this year for teachers, who will research and investigate PBL and how to incorporate it into the classroom, likely beginning next school year. It also allowed the school to hire Portland-based PBL expert Suzie Boss as a consultant.

Bergmann emphasized that by taking its time with the year of preparation will allow the school to introduce the model effectively from the start.

“If all goes according to plan, we’ll start seeing more and more of it next year on a school-wide basis,” Bergmann said. “In time, I’m hoping this becomes the norm for Silver School and that we are going to be known as a PBL school.”

He also hopes that future parents will familiarize themselves with PBL and understand the benefits of the approach and the potential opportunities it will provide their children.

“We truly believe that kids are going to benefit from the approach, that they will leave our school very well prepared to meet a world that we haven’t yet been able to imagine,” Bergmann said. “They’re going to practice applying what they’ve learned.”

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