Project-based learning in Northwest Iowa

Many schools in Iowa are trying to find small chunks of time that allow students to engage in some inquiry- or project-based learning. These might be class-level projects, teacher-led exploratories, or student-led ‘genius hours.’ Several districts in Northwest Iowa are going beyond these smaller experiments, however. They’re carving out a couple of weeks for a ‘J Term’ in January after winter break, or a May Term at the end of the year, or even a mid-semester ‘MidMester Academy.’ These initiatives typically offer students an immersive, project-based experience of 30 to 50 hours, capped with a public exhibition / defense to the community.


Student projects are quite varied and create student learning opportunities that may not occur in schools’ typical core curricula. For example, at Spirit Lake High School, students learn about Yamazumi charts, Kaizen events, elemental spaghetti diagrams, and other lean engineering techniques with Polaris, the local snowmobile manufacturer. They gain real-world web development experience by designing a new website for their community. They explore law enforcement issues such as crime labs, use of force, drug policing, SWAT, and polygraphs with the local police department. They discover how to weld by creating a new sculpture for the community. They learn about the beauty industry and the local theatre through field trips and hands-on disciplinary work.

Down the road at Okoboji Middle School, students learn about coding, robotics, computer-aided drafting, and 3D design in their Designing for the Future and Robots: Let the Races Begin projects. They identify a business or charity, create promotional materials, organize fundraisers, and compete against other teams as part of their Pioneer Apprentice project. They make atlatls, duck boxes, and goose nesting structures – and learn how to process wild game – in their Outdoors in Iowa project. Other projects allow students to explore Native American history, investigate risk-taking through the lens of immigration, study and create American folktales, use their geography skills to survive a fictional viral outbreak, and participate in an ‘Amazing Race’ focused on the provinces and territories of Canada.

Over at Southeast Valley High School, students learn the strategies of medieval warfare and compete against each other with self-designed catapults. They study the Holocaust and its relevance to today. They examine the history of rock and roll and write their own rock anthems. They design their own video games, learn about project planning and the hospitality business, are introduced to landscape design, and go deep with Rube Goldberg machines. And in Newell-Fonda High School, students learn outdoor survival skills, create ‘life hacks,’ explore the financial and marketing aspects of running a sports franchise, and investigate the science behind real world objects through their own, local ‘How Stuff Works’ spinoff.

Where’s the technology in all of these projects? As Chris Lehmann would say, it’s ‘ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.’ Digital learning tools are present in all of these activities, they’re necessary to accomplish the work, but they’re invisible in the sense that they’re just a means to an end, not the end itself. And that’s how they should be.

What could your students do in a 1- or 2-week immersive inquiry- or project-based learning experience?

Image and video credits: Spirit Lake High School

3 Responses to “Project-based learning in Northwest Iowa”

  1. Have you heard of the Learning in Depth program? Think you might be interested… The idea behind this project is to allow students 1 hour / week and they study a single topic over many years. Ideally, for their entire school career. That is REAL depth. Very cross-curricular. Only topic students develop a genuine expertise with. I thought you might be interested. Lots of schools/teachers doing it! Not yet on my blog (soon) but you can read about it here:
    It is a program linked to the work of Kieran Egan on imagination in learning.

  2. Scott,
    I am all about project based learning. I think the implementation of a small chuck of time to focus on a project is a very effective idea. It gives the students a chance to focus on 21st century skills and use their knowledge from curriculum courses to a project. It gives them an opportunity to use their hands and technology. The students step outside the “student role” and become a part of a project. In addition, providing them with opportunities that are outside the curriculum can spark interests, skills and career interests that they never knew they had. They are able to learn about industries and work behind the scenes of a project. It gives them a purpose. My favorite statement from your post was about digital learning tools. You started that “As Chris Lehmann would say, it’s ‘ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible'”. I think technology should be invested in the learning as much as possible.
    I have not taken the time to find out projects my students could complete in a 1- or 2-week immersive inquiry- or project-based learning experience. However, I am really interested into implementing one now and giving them a certain amount of time per week to work on it. If you have any resources where I can find some please let me know!
    Thank you for posting about this!


    • Nicole, I don’t know how useful it is to think about importing ready-made ‘projects’ into our classrooms. I think it’s likely more productive to think deeply about the Buck Institute’s characteristics of ‘Gold Standard PBL’ and then create projects (hopefully, collaboratively rather than in isolation) that make sense for our local contexts?

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