How ACE Academy Implemented 4 PBL Experiences

Christine Bell
Editor
Blog on February 02 2023

It seems like every new school year brings a new initiative, updated pedagogical approaches, and new technologies to adopt. It can be frustrating for administrators and teachers to keep their schools and classes current while ensuring their students are learning. Project-based learning has been trending in education for quite a few years now, and like all popular methodologies, it has its detractors and its fervent fans. Full disclosure, we’re proponents. If you’re here, you’re looking to read a story about PBL implementation, but we don’t want to ignore the challenges of PBL either. It’s part of the reason we developed iBlocks to begin with – to address the challenges educators have and alleviate some of the difficulties they face. We’ll look at how iBlocks helped students at ACE Academy get the most out of their PBL experience, but first, let’s address why PBL is considered a daunting prospect for so many.  

iBlocks and PBL challenges and benefits 

One of the biggest arguments against PBL is that it takes an inordinate amount of time to plan and implement properly. This is often due to the shift in methodology required from the teacher and the shift in expectations for the students. If you’re new to PBL, you may want to take a deeper dive on what exactly it is and isn’t. There are a few ways to overcome this particular hurdle, and the rewards of properly implementing PBL are definitely worth the effort! Proponents of PBL laud its ability to make learning “stick.” When students are engaged in truly authentic, meaningful experiences that allow them to explore real world issues in a hands-on way, they become inspired and may inspire others. From launching future careers to connecting students more closely with their communities, good PBL can sometimes seem nothing short of miraculous. The impressiveness of PBL done well can also feed into the narrative that PBL is nearly impossible for teachers to do unless they have a ton of free time to plan, organize, and practice. It can all seem a little daunting at first. In truth, it’s simply different than other methodologies, and having the proper support and materials can make a world of difference.  

iBlocks PBL experiences, as I mentioned above, were designed to alleviate this pain point for educators. Each iBlock is a series of activities, based on the engineering design process and project-based learning methodology, that engages students in a particular topic and culminates in a capstone project. Essentially, all the groundwork has been laid for the teacher – from standards alignment and sequencing, all the way to lesson plans and specific scaffolding ideas. Meant as supplements to existing curriculum, they typically take about 20-25 classroom hours to complete. Topics include rigorous STEM projects like building a telescope or programming a robotic athlete, as well as humanities-oriented projects like creating comic books or discovering Native American culture. There’s something for every grade level, K-12, and each iBlock is guaranteed to be transdisciplinary and work on transferable skills like SEL and 21st century skills. With this in mind, let’s look at what implementation looks like in an actual classroom.  

Implementing PBL at ACE Academy 

5 Dash robots dressed like animals on a desk with the Class Pet Student Workbook in front.
Dash robot “class pets” designed by ACE Academy 2nd graders

At ACE Academy in New York, one teacher was able to implement project-based learning with iBlocks – and not just for one class, but four different projects for four different grade levels, all at the same time! While it may sound like a superhuman feat, ACE Academy teacher, Joanne Baker-Smith, was able to accomplish it with help from iBlocks. This wasn’t her first experience with PBL in the elementary classroom, as having previously implemented PBL gave her a great basis for comparison. According to Baker-Smith, “having done PBL before, it was nice that the planning and materials were done.” Taking the weight off teachers’ shoulders is what iBlocks are all about. Take for example, standards alignment; because each part of an iBlock is aligned to state standards, teachers don’t have to worry about standards compliance. As Baker-Smith points out, that’s especially great for when an admin pops in to see how the new PBL unit is going! What’s more, for Baker-Smith, the materials lent themselves especially well to her ambitious goal of implementing four PBL experiences with four different classes ranging from second to fifth grade. “The layout of the materials and lessons is great,” she says, “I could tell that the person who created these had experience in the classroom. They follow a similar pattern, so it makes it easy to do with different grade levels.” Let’s look at the implementation process and the specific projects that ACE academy students were able to complete.  

Learning how to learn: PBL in second and third grade 

In her second-grade class, Baker-Smith implemented the Class Pet iBlock, which combines early biology concepts with robotics and coding for young learners. After learning about different types of animals that typically make good class pets, students explored their features, habitats, and needs. They then used this information to design a robotic class pet. To do so, they got into some block-based coding with Wonder Workshop’s Dash robot. “Students adored the addition of the tech,” says Baker-Smith, “they thought it was so cool.”  The students found using technology during PBL to be challenging, but ultimately, each group of students was able to decorate and program their class pet robot then show off their hard work in a robotic pet parade! In her third-grade class, students completed the Reimagining Public Transportation iBlock, designing and testing a maglev model train. “Finding the right magnets that would repel strongly was tricky,” says Baker-Smith, “but once we did it was great – students really enjoyed the hands-on components of it, and they learned a lot.”  

Model trains made from consumables on a desk with 2 completed pages of student design and reflection work.
Model trains and student design and reflection work.

Overcoming challenges and experimenting with technology is all part and parcel of an iBlocks experience. Part of the beauty of PBL is that students will invariably develop essential and transferable skills. Aside from gaining academic knowledge, it is so important for children to develop learning habits. Part of this process is developing critical thinking skills, learning how to solve a problem, how to work with others, and what to do when things don’t go according to plan. In this way, PBL taps into social-emotional learning and 21st century skills. After learning about the topics at hand, students got firsthand experience with problem solving on multiple levels. For the second graders, they had to get used to using new technology and also had the bigger challenge of integrating ideas like animals and robots. The third graders tackled the small problem of finding the right magnets, and the larger problem of designing, testing, and improving a model train that would alleviate public transportation issues. In both cases, students were able to overcome challenges through perseverance, and took the leading role in their own learning, which resulted in projects worthy of showing off.  

Adaptable academic rigor: the fourth and fifth grade PBL experience 

In the fourth-grade class, students were tasked with engineering a model home to complete the Tiny Houses iBlock. This project, like all iBlocks, is flexible in how it can be implemented. In the case of Tiny Houses, that flexibility includes how exactly students build their model home – they can use consumable materials or be a little more tech savvy with 3D design and printing. Using a program like Tinkercad can help students explore what’s possible in 3D design and can be used for virtual designs or paired with a slicer to print their creations. Taking the more high-tech option allowed for some additional academic opportunities for ACE Academy students. “Tinkercad is in millimeters,” says Baker-Smith, “doing that conversion [from metric to imperial] was a learning process for them, but it was really awesome.”  Finally, Ms. Baker-Smith’s fifth graders explored space in the Space Systems: Create a Model of an Eclipse iBlock. This time, Baker-Smith found it best to have students complete the project using a combination of consumable materials and 3D printing. After studying the science behind eclipses, students combined science knowledge with modeling and artistic skills to create and eventually film an eclipse model.  

Being flexible in terms of implementation means that iBlocks can adapt to the needs of any classroom. This is true of the content as well. Short on time? IBlocks are easy to pare down; as Baker Smith says, “you can even leave parts out because there is so much content there.” Want to add a little something extra? Each iBlock comes with extension modules and ideas for optional content. For ACE Academy, the addition of a stop motion video illustrating an eclipse was a crowd (and teacher) favorite. As Baker-Smith says, “Stop motion was not something I would ever have thought to do… so it was great to see how well it worked.” Not only does PBL open students up to new ideas and academic challenges, it helps educators try out unique ideas and even use those ideas in different contexts. PBL with iBlocks opens the door to new and exciting avenues of discovery for everyone.  

 

The main point to be taken from this experience is that it’s all about being hands-on and letting students lead the way. As shown from the iBlocks implemented at ACE Academy, subject matter can vary widely and certainly isn’t one-size-fits-all in either content or approach. While this can sound like a large task to coordinate, using iBlocks can make implementation not just accessible, but fun for educators and students alike. PBL is the type of learning that sticks with students long after the class is over. Good PBL, like learning itself, should grow and change with your needs and goals. Once you’ve experienced how transformative it can be, you’ll want to do it repeatedly, and with iBlocks, you can do just that. iBlocks are the perfect blend of adaptable and dependable, or as Baker-Smith puts it, “I think I will appreciate these even more next year, I’m definitely doing them again!”  

 


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