FOCUS ON SUCCESS – Mono County Office of Education

Project Based Learning Proves to Be Authentic, Engaging and Relevant for Students in Mono COE Community Schools.

In the spirit of and aligned with the new Common Core State Standards, the students of the three MCOE Community Schools of Sawtooth Ridge, Tioga, and Jan Work are learning by doing. The MCOE teaching staff has recognized that student centered learning, utilizing the Project Based Learning (PBL) model is producing results. What is Project Based Learning? According to the Buck Institute for Education (, “Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.”

Students have already tackled projects exploring issues of water, how the water cycle works, the history and politics of local water use, and addressed the question of whether access to clean water is a basic human right as part of their earth science curriculum. They have produced final projects for the unit that had “authentic audiences”, not just reports or PowerPoints shared only with the teacher and classmates, but projects that pushed the knowledge gained to others in their extended community.  They hosted the Eastern Sierra premiere of the award-winning documentary “Watershed” and the associate producer visited the school and shared the time lapse camera he built that was used to make the film and talked about careers in the film industry.  And, although the community school sample size is not statistically significant, the students’ performance on the Earth Science CST taken after the PBL was significantly higher than their other CST scores that year.

Last spring, all three schools (located 90 miles apart) worked collaboratively in addressing the complex challenge posed to the students, “Our World: the Ethics, Economics, and Environmental Impacts of Animal Conservation, Environmental Conservation and Tourism.”

The three MCOE Community School teachers each took one of the topic focuses; E3 Impacts of Animal Conservation, E3 Impacts of Environmental Conservation, and E3 Impacts of Tourism, and worked with a group of students who selected the topic focus in which they were most interested. Students used video conferencing and Google apps for group collaboration, online research and Twitter to follow current developments while investigating their topic for three weeks. These projects addressed California State Standards including, but not limited to, ELA, Life Science, Economics, Geography, Career Technical, and Visual and Performing Arts.

Enriching the focus of these projects was a 4-day trip to San Diego. Prior to the trip, the students shared their project-focused research with the other groups. During this educational excursion the students and teachers visited the SD Zoo, Balboa Park and Museums, Birch Aquarium, La Jolla Tide Pools, attended a presentation from the Surfrider Foundation, visited SD Urban Corps and their recycling project, and toured Palomar Community College. Each of the activities required an educational product such as responding to student created questions, photo journals and sketches. These assignments were developed by the students during the PBL investigations  and included in a portfolio that the students completed on the trip.

When they returned from the trip, they completed their final projects and then hosted the screening of the documentary film “Gringo Trails” and shared their projects at the film event. Projects included displays about the pros and cons of factory farming practices, creating an informational website about the ethics of keeping animals in zoos, making and distributing shopping bags from recycled T-shirts, collecting signatures for a local “Ban the Plastic Bag” initiative, creating a vegan cookbook, creating art from collected trash depicting the garbage gyres in the Pacific Ocean, and designing and distributing a water conservation sticker in local schools and businesses, which was also used by the local water district in their newspaper advertising.

The success of the PBL model also goes beyond the academic benefit. During the project there was better attendance and fewer behavioral issues, which are often problems in alternative school programs.  The Buck Institute website offers resources  – planning tools, project templates, rubrics, and more.

For more information on Mono COE’s implementation of the PBL learning model, contact Janet Hunt –