What happens when you put a math and science coach, an art teacher, and a Farm Lab teacher in the same room?

You get a powerful collaboration that can transform teaching and learning behaviors. Through Project-Based Learning (PBL), educators and students are stretching beyond their comfort zones, learning from each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and pushing each other to be vulnerable, innovative, and good team members. The result is both beautiful and messy. We celebrate when our ideas work and learn valuable lessons when they fail.


At the start of the 2014–15 school year, three teachers from Glen Iris Elementary School decided to collaborate on a year-long PBL project. The PBL had three main goals:

1. Educate two 5th grade teachers on how to integrate PBL into their curricula

2. Make learning relevant and rigorous for students

3. Meet a need for the school

The project was centered around transforming the “backfield” of the Glen Iris Farm Lab. The space was underused by teachers and students because of lack of infrastructure; it was underused by Farm Lab Club, a group of students who garden after school, because of its poor soil quality. Our objective was to transform the space to better suit the needs of teachers, students, and Farm Lab Club. Beginning in October and running through the end of the school year, two 5th grade classes met each Friday afternoon for one hour to tackle the backfield PBL project.

Project-Based Learning Stages

Challenging Problem or Question

The driving question for this PBL was: “How can we improve the backfield area of our Farm Lab to suit the needs of teachers, students, and Farm Lab Club?”

Students were led to create the project question by observing and assessing the pros and cons of Farm Lab’s existing teaching and gardening areas. They compared the pond, platform, and raised bed areas to the backfield area. Students discovered that even though it was not as aesthetically pleasing or developed as the other areas, the backfield had lots of learning and gardening potential because of its size and location.

Sustained Inquiry 

To better understand how the space should be transformed, students conducted interviews with community members, teachers, students, and the “sun, air, water, flora, and fauna.” Students also performed site analyses from the perspectives of a worm, a student, and a bird. Once students had a broader understanding of the needs of everyone and everything that uses the space, they used iPads to research ideas for potential build projects. During this creative research process, students learned and practiced the importance of empathy in design thinking.

Student Voice and Choice

From the interviews and research, students decided what four projects they would design and build:

  • a vegetable washing station for the Farm Lab Club

  • a seating area for an entire class

  • a keyhole raised bed based on African sustainable designs

  • a stone raised bed for K–2 students

IMG_4864       IMG_4957


To make this project more relevant, we asked students to apply for specific teams and roles and to agree to abide by certain rules by signing contracts, just like they would for a “real job.” Students developed their math and tool skills by attending the “If I had a hammer” course at the McWane Science Center, where they assembled a house. Students had the “real-world” experience of visiting Lowe’s to select and purchase the materials for their build projects.

Glen Iris_ back field PBL 1_field trip to Lowes_spring 2015_5th grade


Throughout the year, students were encouraged to remind each other of the purpose of this PBL: “How can we improve the backfield area of our Farm Lab to suit the needs of teachers, students, and Farm Lab Club?” They reflected on this purpose through journal entries and also presented the project’s purpose to the new superintendent of Birmingham City Schools, Dr. Kelley Castlin-Gacutan.

Critique and Revision

Before students could purchase supplies or build their projects, they had to collaborate with other teams to ensure their designs were feasible. For example, if the Design Team wanted to build a bench, they had to consult the:

  • Budget Team: How many boards and screws can we buy? How much will the paint cost?

  • Research Team: What safety materials do we need to purchase? What type of wood will last longer outside? How many students can sit on one bench?

  • Construction Team: Is the design too complex for our building skills? Can we build the design within a certain amount of time? How can we improve the bench design to make it stronger?

After consulting with other teams, the Design Team made and tested a prototype. Students then spent an intensive week building and improving their projects.

Public Product

Once all the projects were completed, students reflected on and presented their work to the school principal, teachers and students, and JVTF staff.


Teacher and Student Feedback

Lessons learned by teachers include:

  • Don’t teach at the very end of a Friday.

  • Work more closely with homeroom teachers.

  • Listen and be open minded to other teachers’ ideas.

  • Hold other teachers accountable. Share the workload.

  • Make sure you have enough planning time and class time.

Reflections from students include:

“Sometimes stuff is hard work.”

“I learned through working with others that you have to be open minded about other people’s ideas.”

“I learned that I can be smart.”

“I learned that sometimes you will have to use your math skills and that working harder and communicating with others makes the project go faster.”

“I learned that working together you have to be nice.”

“The most enjoyable part of this project was when we were through and took a couple of steps back and saw how good we did.”

Blog post written by Stella Pfau, current JVTF Curriculum Writer and previous Glen Iris GSF Instructor. 

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