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Project-based learning: students follow their interests and explore potential careers

All Year 11-13 students at Albany Senior High School spend a whole day every week working on Impact Projects. They can explore topics or work areas they are particularly interested in, and link with local employers, tertiary providers or community groups.

The Impact Projects have been an integral part of the curriculum since the school opened in 2009. Deputy Principal Miranda Makin was involved in setting up the programme. She explains it was partly to give students the opportunity to really develop the sorts of skills that governments have recognised as important for growing an innovative and productive economy, “It’s an authentic way to develop key competencies such as project leadership, time management, communication and presentation skills.”

The other reason, she says, “is that we believe it’s not if you are bright, but how you are bright. Students work from their strengths and bring their interests and passions from beyond the school and curriculum and explore them within a project framework.”

Students follow the technological process specified in the Technology curriculum – from developing a brief through to evaluating their outcome – and can work within any one or multiple specialist subjects. They usually work in small groups, reflecting how projects are managed in the workplace. After completing their two-term project students can focus on a different aspect or start a new project.

Teachers mentor the students and also help them find opportunities to submit their work as evidence for NCEA assessment or to enter competitions such as the Young Designers Awards or Vex Robotics. While students can work on a CREST project or Gateway placement, it will just be one part of a project and they will do far more than that.

Now in its seventh year, the initiative has been tweaked at various stages along the way.  Teachers identified that the most successful projects had four common key principles, and students are directed to include these aspects in their projects:

  1. Student ownership and participation
  2. Substantial learning beyond the classroom – and students share their knowledge through presentations to their tutorial groups or community groups
  3. Creating a quality product – it could be a tangible outcome, such as a leaf-blower hovercraft, or developing a programme such as coaching primary students in a sport
  4. Links with the community – students are required to participate in or contribute to their community, for example, working at a tertiary institution, developing a product or process for a business, or creating a performance for a local group. Experts also visit the school to share their expertise.

Making these principles a core part of the projects has, Miranda says, “given teachers and students a common language and common goals.”

Head student Hannah Cassone is enthusiastic about the “awesome opportunities” the student-driven projects provide, attributing her experience with last year’s project to her changing career path from architecture to engineering. Hannah and her team mate completed a Massey University School of Engineering and Advanced Technology first-year paper as part of their project. In response to the course’s Engineers Without Borders challenge, they created a ventilation system to help dissipate unhealthy cooking smoke in Nepalese village homes.

This year, Hannah has work experience at engineering firm Aurecon for her project. “Before all of these opportunities,” she says, “I was a really average student. I was told by an engineering student that I wouldn’t succeed because I am a female – I loved proving those people wrong and inspiring others because of it.”

Others have also changed their plans for the future as a result of their impact projects. One student aspired to be a basketball player but, after exploring aspects of dance in his projects and picking up Level 3 Dance as a subject, is now studying Performing Arts on an AUT scholarship.

“The projects are an exciting opportunity for students to explore how they fit into the world.” Miranda says, “and for some can be a transforming experience.”

Read about Hannah's project
Read more about the Impact Projects
Read Technology Online article about the Impact Projects

Published August 2015

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