Category Archives: 21st Century Learning

DIY Learning Projects

gaming_JacobThis semester, we had a new High School course on offer for students: “Project X.” It was an experimental course of “DIY Learning,” where the students took control of their own learning. They chose a topic to learn about, planned their learning, and conducted their own research into the topic. The semester started with some teacher-led instruction of how to plan a learning experience, as well as how the brain works and how to study and learn new topics efficiently. The bulk of the semester had the students taking the lead, and so my role as “teacher” was to guide them and make sure they were on track, sticking to their plan, and making progress.

This week we had them present their learning to their classmates. It was a diverse range of subjects that they’d chosen to study. One studied astrophysics, while another studied graphic design and art using a graphics tablet. A few learned computer programming, and a few studied business plans and entrepreneurship. One learned computer game design, another studied how computers work and created a “visible computer” display showing the exposed components of a computer. The last presentation was by a student who studied international law, and she led the class in the enactment of a trial.

It was a fascinating experience, both for the teacher/facilitator, as well as for the students. We all learned a lot – not only about the subjects we studied but also about how we work and learn.

graphics_AbelAbel showing off art created on a graphic tablet. ExposedComputer_MoMohamed showing off his “visible computer.”
court_NubiaNubia presiding over a class trial. business_SebSeb making his elevator pitch.
Cross-posted from my school blog.

Projects of Passion

 “I wish school was like this every day.”

When a teacher hears this kind of comment from a student, you know you’re doing something right. There were a number of comments like this last week from Grade 10 students. They had a week off timetable and we decided to give them a week of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) projects, plus some time to do a “passion project” on a topic/area of interest of their choosing. The students rose to the occasion and did some amazing work.

There are a few elements of the week that are worth focusing on:


JpegStudents were able to choose which area they wanted to work in. It was first-come first-served (so some got their second choice), but the students appreciated being able to pick for themselves what type of work they wanted to do.

One group of students built air-pressured bottle rockets designed to launch into the air and travel safely (with a parachute for gentle landings) a specified distance. They learned about aeronautics, hydrolics and air pressure, drag, and other important Science and Engineering concepts. Another group used SketchUp to build digital 3D scale models of campus buildings. They measured, calculated and used Trigonometry and other Mathematics concepts to make sure their models were to scale. A third group of students built and programmed robots to perform set tasks. Another group of students used LiveCode to program their own computer game. Finally, another group of students created a 3D mural to adorn the mini-amphitheatre reflecting Ethiopia, Lucy and human bones.

Students really appreciated being able to choose different projects and being more in control of their work.


Students were given an opportunity to pursue a “passion project” – to pick an area that they (individually or in small groups) were very interested in and to do a project related to that. They were given time and some guidance to the project, but otherwise allowed to work at their own speed & level.

Some students explored photography, others focused on a sport. Some continued their STEAM project, while others

created something artistic. One student created a model of an invention by Leonardo da Vinci. Another researched a medical issue and produced a poster giving information about it. A few wrote poems, while others wrote and performed songs. Several made videos about their passion, whether it was skateboarding, football, forestry or other topics.

Many students commented on how they appreciated being able to pursue their own particular interest.


JpegStudents were given a fair bit of latitude in doing their own individual passion project, and given a fair bit of leeway in the other projects regarding what they would contribute or produce. Students appreciated being given time and space to do their work at their own pace. Teachers were monitoring them and keeping them on task, but they weren’t constantly directing the students. As one student said:

“I liked getting the opportunity of exploring what interests us. I also loved the liberty that we were bestowed with. We didn’t have teachers telling us what to do for once. “


STEAM week for Grade 10 students

JpegAs we’ve refined our Week Without Walls trips, we’ve adjusted the school schedule to minimize the disruption to classes. In the High School, we’ve scheduled two grade levels at the same time, leaving two other grade levels in school to focus on different parts of their learning. For IB Diploma students in grades 11 and 12, that week is a chance to focus on the IB courses and related work. For 9th and 10th grade students, the week is a special off-timetable week that focuses on project-based learning and learning experiences beyond the normal boundaries of subject areas and class periods.

This week, Grade 10 students are experiencing a special STEAM week. STEAM is an acronym referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. This is an are of increased emphasis in education, as schools recognize the increasing need to educate students in these areas to help them be more creative and critical thinkers as well as being more adept in our technological world.

For this week, we built a special schedule that would give students a chance to get a little introduction to each area, and then to choose an area in which to work for longer periods of time. Each group of students is working in one area to develop a project that they will share and show off at the end of the week. The PE teachers organized some physical breaks for the students, and Elias Fessehaye is leading the students in a fun and engaging Korfball tournament.

JpegThere are five main areas where the students are working on projects. In the Arts, Laura Blue-Waters is guiding a group of students to create a 3D mural to be displayed outdoors on campus. Leulseged Assefa is working with a group of students on programming robots to complete different challenges, working in the areas of Technology and Engineering. In Mathematics, Rob Maddock is working with a group of students to measure school buildings and use the 3D modelling software SketchUpMake to build a scale model of the campus. I’m working with students in Technology to build applications, programming games that can run on any computer. And in Science and Engineering, Dave Acland is challenging students to design and build a device that will launch and transport an object a set height and distance.

These challenges let the students explore different tasks than what they normally have to grapple with in classes, work together, plan and build solutions to problems, test those solutions and revise their work as needed. It’s a dynamic, fun and challenging experience for all.

JpegIn addition to these set areas, we’ve also built in some “Genius Hour” time (also called 20% time) to allow students to explore and learn in areas that they have an individual interest. This is a technique that many schools are implementing – it comes from various sources, including Google’s initiative to allow employees to use 20% of their time to work on any project they are interested in. There’s a long and growing tradition of “heutagogy” – allowing students to develop their own learning experiences by pursuing things they are passionate about.

Our grade 10 students had to plan and get approved their ideas for their own Passion Projects, and there’s an interesting and varied bunch of projects. Students are making videos, building models, creating artwork, making posters, taking photos, doing research, and more. These are in areas related to physical fitness and sports, medicine, history, zoology, Art and other subjects. It’ll be exciting to see what they come up with by the end of the week!

It’s proving to be an active and fascinating week (I’m writing this midway through) and I’m looking forward to reporting on the outcomes after the students share their STEAM and Passion projects on Friday.