Carmen and Teresa were surprised when they arrived to class. There were green streamers and green plastic material all over the place. It covered the desks, chairs, bookshelves, and was even on some trash items scattered on the floor. “What happened?” they wondered while excitedly discussing with their classmates.
Carmen and Teresa were 5th graders in Heather Creelman’s class at Goshen Post Elementary, a wall-to-wall PBL school in Loudoun County Public Schools, Virginia. It was launch day for a new project focused on food webs, oceans, and photosynthesis. The “green” represented algae that was out of control at Virginia Beach, located three hours away from their school. Students had many questions:
- Why was there so much algae?
- What caused it to spread?
- What are the uses of algae?
- What are the results of over production of algae?
- Does it matter if there is so much algae?
Students were already familiar with the PBL process and started generating Need to Know questions. The discussion on the causes and effects of the algae led to how problems in the food chain can lead to an overpopulation of algae due to a lack of oxygen produced by plankton. Students followed up the food chain from plankton to sharks and realized that a shortage of sharks led to a ripple effect down. At this point Creelman showed a video on shark thinning and how the species was moving toward endangerment. She then asked the Driving Question: “How can we as stewards of the ocean advocate for the protection of sharks?”
Creelman and her colleagues had planned this project to focus on an authentic problem that matched standards in science, technology, and ELA. They knew that sharks would be the focus and that students would create a brochure of their learning and have a verbal presentation, but they didn’t know what direction students would take the project and who the audience would be. They left that up to the students to decide.
Through research students soon discovered that sharks were often hunted specifically for their dorsal fin. Fisherman would cut it off to be sold to restaurants for shark fin soup and throw the rest of the shark back into the ocean. They were not happy about this practice! Carmen looked into the law and discovered that Virginia already had a law prohibiting shark fishing, but it had a loophole: restaurants could still buy shark fins harvested elsewhere. Teresa discovered that there was a restaurant an hour away that actually served shark fin soup.
Students were outraged and decided that they needed to take action. They wanted to educate the public and change the law. Students discussed who the authentic audience should be, and they immediately decided that the president must act! The teachers dialed down their expectations to a local official. Students researched and found their State Representative Jennifer Wexton and sent an email inviting her to their classroom to hear about the sale of shark fins. A few days later, Rep. Wexton responded yes and a date was set.
Carmen and Teresa were so excited! They knew that their work on sharks would be shared with a celebrity. This wasn’t a make believe project. They would have the ear of an actual government official. Carmen and Teresa worked hard on their brochure and elevator pitch. They gave and received feedback to their classmates through the Tuning Protocol. They revised their work so that they could present a factual and motivational presentation on why shark products should not be sold.
The big day came for Rep. Wexton to visit. Carmen and Teresa were nervous, but confident because they believed in the urgency of their pitch and were well prepared. When it was their turn, they shook Rep. Wexton’s hand and delivered their elevator pitch. It was a great day for Goshen Post Elementary to be proud of!
Fast forward a year later when out of the blue, Creelman received a tweet with a video in it from Rep. Wexton revealing that the House in Virginia had passed the Shark Fin Sale Elimination Act, a bill banning the commercial sale of shark fins and products containing shark fins.
When Creelman shared the news with Carmen and Teresa and the rest of the now 6th grade students, they were overjoyed! They beamed with confidence from what they had achieved.
Responsible Decision Making
The Shark Fin Project is an exemplary example of how PBL can be used to develop the Social and Emotional Skills of Responsible Decision Making. Students were identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, and evaluating during the entire project. From the launch students were asking questions and actively investigating the root cause of too much algae at the beach. They were exploring an authentic problem near them and looked to solve it.
Inquiry throughout the project had them discovering and analyzing the sale of shark fins in their state and concluding the action needed was to pass a new law. Through the Tuning Protocol, students evaluated each other’s work. Students reflected on changes they needed to make to their final presentations.
The ultimate result of this project was that students not only learned about, but practiced ethical responsibility. They took on the task of making a change in their state laws. During final reflection Carmen said, “This made me see that people will actually listen to me even though I am only 10.” Teresa agreed adding, “I am going to vote someday because it does make a difference.”
Creelman shared that in her ten years of teaching, students have never been more empowered because they knew they were making a real impact. As teachers we don’t need to focus on preparing students for the future, they can make a difference RIGHT NOW if only given the opportunity!