Kristina Rizga: You’ve received national awards for your teaching, especially around project-based learning. Could you explain what that looked like in your classroom?
Deborah Cornelison: All of my students’ projects—whether they were individual or group projects—were always centered around identifying real problems in the community, gathering meaningful data, setting up experiments, and then finding solutions. The way I taught changed a great deal since I began teaching in 1988. But I always wanted our projects to go beyond the typical cookbook lab experiences, in which students are asked to just follow the directions, which tell you exactly what to do and what to confirm. I wanted my students to learn skills that would help them be more successful in life and work: exploration, critical thinking, and problem-solving through collaboration.
For example, one group of ninth graders worked on a research project investigating carbon-dioxide levels in the classrooms of Byng Junior High School. First, they tested almost every classroom in our building, and found that the carbon-dioxide levels in some places were much higher than they should be—particularly in crowded classrooms after lunch. Students analyzed blueprints for the building and discussed their findings with the maintenance director responsible for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Together, they came to the preliminary conclusion that it was probably a matter of how much fresh air the building was bringing in. It costs more money to heat and cool that fresh air, so systems are sometimes adjusted as a cost-saving measure. The amount of fresh air was increased to improve air quality, with re-testing until carbon-dioxide levels were within recommended levels.
Another group of students worked on a project about healthy foods, and as a result, brought back our cafeteria’s salad bar, which had been removed. They began by surveying students about what they were eating for lunch and what they wanted changed. They interviewed the cafeteria workers for corroborating evidence. They engaged experts, analyzed their data, and wrote a presentation about healthy eating habits—which they then used to educate their peers. Then they presented their findings to the superintendent.
One project researched the impact of sleep deficit in teenagers. They had all their classmates complete sleep logs for two weeks as they gathered data. They researched data on the importance of sufficient sleep and habits that improve sleep, such as waking up at the same time every day, limiting the use of electronics before bedtime, and increasing exercise. They then made a presentation to the school board and educated the community about the importance of sufficient sleep—and in their post-project surveys of students in our school, they learned that 90 percent of them said that they improved their sleeping habits.