Tag Archives: Resonsible Decision Making

PBL Service Learning = Authentic SEL Experience

Art created by Heartside patrons


Darius was a struggling student. In fact, he had not completed a project all year. To top it off, he had been arguing with his mom a ton at home and the extended December break meant a further strain on their relationship. When school started back up in the new year, he learned that the class would be taking a trip to Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. He was not thrilled. As an introvert, he was nervous about meeting new people and having to talk. Afterwards he admitted that he enjoyed the experience and wanted to make something to help the patrons.

Darius and his group decided to make “Greaterade,” a new sports drink. They squeezed out juice from real lemons and oranges. They read that a little heat would help an upset stomach so they put some red pepper flakes in it. They added a salt, calcium magnesium, to help with recovery. The first batch was a disaster. It had pulp and seeds in it and tasted horrible from the pepper and calcium magnesium. They shifted to using lemon and lime juice, decreased the salt, and skipped the peppers. The second batch still tasted nasty from the calcium magnesium. Other students wouldn’t even try these first attempts in a taste test. On the third try, they decreased the calcium magnesium, and their drink tasted delicious. Now everyone wanted to try some. Darius was proud to bring his drink to share with Heartside visitors. As a bonus, his science teacher, Nate Langel, called his mother to share his success and discovered that Darius was talking with his mother again and mending that relationship. 

Failing Forward

Luciana was stressed. She was struggling to create bath bombs. In her latest trial, she had forgotten to add cornstarch to her recipe and instead of hardening, the mixture stayed slimy again. She knew better. From previous trials, she knew that she needed cornstarch for thickening, but it looked so much like baking soda that she accidentally neglected it. Now she had wasted a trial and ran out of citric acid, one of the active ingredients that creates the fizz in water. Maybe she should give up and just buy some at the store. But Luciana persevered, bought more citric acid, and successfully made her bath bombs. They were diamond shaped from forms that she had designed and 3D printed. 

Luciana was not alone in struggling with her experiments. Every student at the Grand Rapids Museum School that I talked to had generated multiple attempts in the Poverty Project. Students were creating products in response to the Driving Question, “How can we use material science to develop food, care, and art products to share with our Heartside neighbors?” while studying the polar and nonpolar properties of molecules. Tad and Gamon ran fourteen trials attempting to make a healthier toothpaste without the many chemicals in commercially sold ones. Their sticking point was the nasty flavor of their main, active ingredient, baking soda. In the end, they were unsuccessful, but appreciated the freedom to try and fail. 

Community Partner

Motivation during the Poverty Project came from the school partnership with Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. Heartside describes itself as a “living room” for underprivileged people. They don’t offer regular meals or overnight lodging, but a warm, safe space in the daytime to rest and get a cup of coffee. Heartside offers GED classes, church and counseling services, and a service dog. They have a spacious art studio where people produce beautiful pieces, expressing their creativity. 

This service project had an authentic audience of homeless people and the Heartside staff. The project launched with a visit to Heartside to meet people and investigate needs. It culminated with a return visit for students to demonstrate their products and explain the science behind them. Students were surprised when the patrons asked lots of science questions. One patron, who called herself Precise, asked very specific questions and shared life lessons with them. It was eye opening for the students to meet James, who although homeless himself, was trying to help other homeless people. Students became passionate about finding a solution to homelessness.

The Poverty Project integrated social studies, ELA, and science curriculum. In social studies, students researched the twenties and thirties looking at the government’s role in affecting poverty and homelessness during the Great Depression. For the humanities part of the project, students read Of Mice and Men then visited other homeless organizations in town to interview people. Students considered the DQs, “When does helping help? When does helping hurt?” The final product was a blog based on the interviews.


Luciana had another problem to solve. Homeless people did not have access to bathtubs so although her product met science standards, it was not practical. She decided to wrap the bath bombs in decorative bags and sell them. When her supply exceeded the demand from friends and family, she sold them at her public library. Luciana used the money to purchase art from Heartside patrons, supporting the people in a dignified way.

Science teacher, Nate Langel, who designed the project shared the following SEL goals: empathy, gratefulness, service, compassion, and social justice. During reflection at the end of the project, students articulated the analogy of the science concepts of polar and nonpolar properties to our society. 

“People are sometimes like oil and water, but they don’t have to be. People that have homes are the oil and people who don’t are like water. Our school is the soap, an emulsifier that breaks down the separation between them.”

In the Poverty Project, students practiced Responsible Decision Making through the tests and trials of their experiments. While students created products to help homeless people, they were learning core content in ways that not only benefited the community, but create a generation of students who have strong Social Awareness to take on the local and global issues with empathy and compassion.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

No Shark Fin Soup for You!

Algae Bomb

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?”

Authentic Inquiry

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!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.