Real-Life Projects in Schools

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Today, more than ever before, education needs to be for the future, not only for the present or the past. Education also needs to focus on real life, rather than only on text books and exams.

The Indian Education System, especially the school system is much talked about these days. The CBSE (Central Board for Secondary Education) which has made the board exams optional at the 10th grade level may be one step to reduce meaningless rote learning – but we need to focus on what helps make learning more meaningful, relevant and holistic.

Project based learning is one of the tools used by educators all over the world to bring meaningful learning to children. Projects offer ‘a model of learning that shifts away from the classroom practices of short, isolated, teacher-centered lessons and instead emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary and student-centered.’We need to focus on what helps make learning more meaningful and relevant, helping children own up their ‘ecological selves’.

‘Real-life’ projects are even more exciting for children because it is ‘for real’! Here is a brief outline of how a group of middle school children worked on a real-life project – “Protecting a lake ecosystem”.

Students, teachers and a few parents brainstormed about how to go about their objective of protecting a small 9 acre lake near their school, especially because its water was overused and it was messy all around. The first thing everyone wanted was to visit the lake as often as they could, enjoy and see how they want to care for it. They then decided to take up these activities:

  • Search the net for information about all Bangalore lakes.
  • Clean up plastic and other waste around the lake.
  • Make friends with the children of the village school nearby.
  • Study the flora and fauna in and around the lake, for which they invited an expert on Bangalore lakes, Mr. Chakrapani to help them.
  • Meet the professor and students of Indian Institute of Science who, they heard were doing research on Bangalore’s lakes.
  • Meet the Director of the Lake Development Authority and understand how lakes need to be protected from encroachers etc.
  • Measure the perimeter of the lake and learn to calculate the approximate area of an irregular surface.
  • A journal was to be maintained by every child and groups working on some of these activities would make a report on their findings.

Children worked on about 5 Saturdays and 4 to 5 periods a week for 2 months on this project. Their final activity was to write songs on the lake, set it to music and hold a “Save a Lake Concert” at the Cubbon Park Bandstand in Bangalore!

The learning process was amazing because they not only got the confidence that a group of people can work on an issue of importance to society, but also learnt a lot of biology, mathematics, history, geography, creative writing and much more.

Ground Realities of Real-Life Projects

The first move towards Project based learning has to be an appreciation of its benefits by the management and at least a few interested teachers in the school. While real-life projects can have an academic element, it needs to be understood that these projects are distinctly different from academic assignments which are often called ‘projects’. Several websites of schools and others are available to provide information, motivation and share case-studies. Children need to experience their surroundings more deeply, and value a ‘sense of place’ before they can take care of it… We need to offer opportunities whereby a child is able to identify her location in the intricate web of interconnections in life.

In a country like India, where there is a great feverishness about book and exam based learning, it is good to work with Environment (EVS) projects rather than any other subject. Parents and teachers then, are not over anxious about ‘academic learning’ of maths, science etc. (which are considered more important), and children get to work on an area much more crucial for the future – ecology and living wisely on earth.

Briefly, real-life projects

  • can help in concept understanding, since children have opportunities to experience real issues and figure out concepts themselves, with the ‘aha’ feeling of discovery associated with it.
  • Builds confidence since Projects help make learning interactive, integrated, multi-disciplinary and open-ended, without the threat of exams.
  • Helps children with macro-thinking and fosters a sense of adventure as they seek understanding of various issues.
  • Offers opportunities for mixed age group learning, and learning about behaviour, habits and life-skills

One or two teachers being ‘prime movers’ in this process of learning is important –they need absolute conviction in project based learning. When a school or college has not been engaging with real-life projects, an individual or a small group who are passionate about projects and holistic learning can make all the difference in making it an enjoyable and great learning process.

Getting Started

Real-life projects which are chosen by students along with teachers makes everyone take ownership of the project. Some steps involved in the process of choosing and designing a project are given below:

  1. Decide which classes will participate
  2. Allocate a certain number of sessions for the project
  3. Hold a meeting of involved teachers and management to explore the idea of the ‘real-life’ project. It is advisable to choose such a project to be done within the campus or in its surrounding locality. An external resource person with experience of such projects can be valuable.
  4. Get the teaching community involved – this is of paramount importance because our role changes – from being an ‘in-putter’ of information, we become co-travelers and explorers along with our students.
  5. Involve a few interested parents who have the time and the inclination

Brainstorming and Planning

A series of brainstorming sessions with teachers, students and interested parents are needed to look at possiblities, evaluate each project idea and choose one.

Keeping the school campus and its immediate surroundings in mind, ideas for projects can be shared without dismissing any as ‘not do-able’, ‘too difficult’ etc. Teachers and children will surely draw up a list of projects that can be taken up such as:

  1. A plastic clean-up drive in a specific area near the school or within the campus.
  2. Starting an Organic garden.
  3. Installing a rain-water harvesting or solar lighting system in any building or rooms in the campus.
  4. Making a small eco-friendly building.
  5. Understanding Food and Nutrition and review the food served from the school or college kitchen
  6. Protecting a near-by lake eco-system.

The Project chosen must be well defined and written down - we need to ensure that it is SMART, ie. Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound.

The objectives are then stated and key milestones and time frame for completing each milestone should also be defined by each group if possible.

The project module also needs to take into account multiple requirements of students for activities like discussion time
watching relevant documentary films

  • journal writing
  • creative solutions
  • group activities
  • field trips
  • concept sessions
  • interaction with outside agencies
  • interaction with nearby communities
  • activism that is centered on creating awareness

 

Great Unexpected Spin-offs

 

With real-life projects, you can always be sure of wonderful unexpected spin-offs. Some students who are always switched-off in class perk up and may be the most active ones. A child who is indifferent to creative writing may write a poem; There is an excited buzz in the air and you hear snatches of project related conversation all the time; children learn to appreciate each others’ diverse strengths. What better way then, to make children love learning?

We cannot teach children the real meaning of ecology in the class room alone. Children need experiences of wild nature, of tending to growing plants, of opportunities to explore the web of connections that form our natural surroundings; Children need to experience their surroundings more deeply, and value a ‘sense of place’ before they can take care of it. We need to offer avenues whereby a child is able to identify her location in this intricate web of interconnections; and finally we need to give her perspectives that enables her to define her responsibilities towards the larger community/society she is part of. Learning thus, can become wholistic, equipping children for an uncertain future and schools can be places where meaningful and relevant learning can take place.