Most students do not come to our classes in love with the content. Maybe one geeky kid does, but most kids need a hook. Therefore we need to generate some excitement by launching PBL projects with an entry event. Remember Bill Nye’s formula for an engaging show for kids: ABC, action before content. We can’t expect students to be immediately ready to immerse themselves in new ideas.
The purpose of the entry event is to generate a buzz around the topic, build curiosity, and give students some initial background knowledge. The best entry events have both a cognitive and an empathetic hook to them. We want to catch students by both the heart and the mind.
An effective entry event naturally leads to student questions about the topic. It could be as simple as a short YouTube video or be as complex as a multiple-day simulation. Experiments, guest speakers, and field work are other popular types of entry events. Excellent entry events often have an element of mystery or surprise to them.
Question: When do most schools take field trips?
Answer: At the end of a project or year, often as a reward or celebration.
In PBL, we flip the script and plan field work at the beginning of the project using them as entry events. My colleague, Jim Bentley uses the term field work instead of field trips because the former implies vocation, while the latter implies recreation. Our students won’t be passive spectators, but actively engaged in early research.
Before starting a project on the Industrial Revolution, our students toured local factories to learn how modern manufacturing functions. To launch an integrated project on nuclear power, we visited the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University to discover how atoms are smashed into tiny isotopes that only exist in space. The university professor used magnetic marbles to teach students about isotopes.
In Necedah, Wisconsin, Melissa Riggs and Tracy Saylor’s 1st and 2nd graders investigated the DQ: How does a plant go from seed to table? Their class toured a local cranberry marsh to learn about the life cycle of plants. Students were engaged because they eat Craisins all of the time as snacks, but got to see the entire process from growing to harvesting to packaging and shipping. It demystified that food does not come from the store.
Another common entry event is to invite a guest speakers that can provide insight into different perspectives. The MyParty Election Project brought in local campaign managers from both the Democratic and Republican Party to share with students. One student asked the Republican representative, “What do you do to appeal to young people?” The campaign manager asked him if he really wanted to know the truth. After confirming that the student truly did, the campaign manager told the class, “Nothing, because young people don’t vote.” That interaction fired up the students to make their voices heard!
I had members of the Lost Boys of Sudan come share about what it is like to be child refugees as a result of genocide. In a Great Depression project, a formerly homeless family told their story of job loss and medical bills to help students dig deeper into the causes of poverty. For women’s rights, a female pastor shared her heartbreaking story of years of spousal abuse, and how she escaped. Investment brokers explained to students how to properly invest in a financial planning project.
When the distance is too far, guest schedules are too busy, or there is no budget for field work, videoconferencing is an excellent alternative. With today’s free technology, students can connect with experts anywhere in the world to learn with them and communicate their own discoveries. Another option is to record student questions that an expert can videotape their response. This is a great solution when time zones are an issue or if you have multiple classes and don’t want to overwhelm a guest by asking them to spend a whole day at your school.
When students are hooked from the start, they will ask important questions related to the topic in the Need to Know process. These will motivate kids to continue inquiry throughout the project. The questions become the foundation for the learning throughout the rest of the project. So remember your ABC as you plan your next project!