Project-Based :: City Project

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Lessons Learned and Bridges.

The inspiration for the city project - Hand-drawn maps for an Ozobot robot.

The inspiration for the city project – hand-drawn maps for an Ozobot robot.

For the last few weeks I’ve been showcasing my younger son’s project on bridges. I haven’t exactly ignored the project my older child has been working on, rather it took a long time to develop into a coherent project and there wasn’t much to share. Initially, my son and his friend were inspired by drawing Ozobot maps and it took some time for the project to develop into one about city planning and structure. Much of the first few weeks were reading, researching and working through some of the projects in this book (which the boys found at the library and chose for themselves).

R's Ozobot city map - at least one of the many variations he made.

R’s Ozobot city map – at least one of the many variations he made.

A's hand-drawn map...for an Ozobot.

A’s hand-drawn map…for an Ozobot.

My son and his friend began with a final project in mind. They wanted to make a model city – out of clay. No problem, I said, however I want you to do the research first. I know they know how to make a model city, but I wanted to make sure they learned about cities in the process. Tricky stuff – being a facilitator. It’s half knowing when to guide, knowing when to keep your mouth shut, and lastly, knowing when to put some limits on the project to lead it in a particular way.

I fully recognize that putting limits on a project doesn’t seem to be “true” project-based learning, but I was a bit disappointed in the catapult project. They built the catapult, but didn’t really go much further than that. Don’t misunderstand me – there was a lot of value in reading plans, executing them, going to the hardware store and interacting with adults. All of this is really important stuff, but I knew they could take it further and I think the “completion” of the project signaled the “end” for that group of boys. So, I wanted to eliminate that. And, I think (oh, dare I say it), I think that it did.

Using the book, Cities: Discover How They Work, the boys learned about different parts of city life (including the concept of planning for the future) and the differences between rural, suburban and urban dwellings.

Using the book, Cities: Discover How They Work, the boys learned about different parts of city life (including the concept of planning for the future).

Rather than strictly make a list, I encouraged these "visual" boys to draw a picture of a concept that represented past, present and future.

Rather than strictly make a list, I encouraged these “visual” boys to draw a picture of a concept that represented past, present and future.

Their project is too lengthy to list the entire process here, but I will touch on a few points. First, they started out by doing research – library research. I think for an elementary-aged student, they need be very, very comfortable inside a library. They need books. I rarely guide them to Internet research – not at this age.

With a large pile of books in hand, one child took notes, while the other read through the rest of the books. They each have their strengths and reading and writing fall between the two of them.

Second, I picked up the Cities book and started to read it aloud to my two 9-year-olds. Yes, aloud. This is such a great book, but it’s in black and white and my two visual-spatial learners are not instantly drawn to it. Then, I asked if they wanted to do one of the projects. I got a “yes” and a “maybe” and so we forged ahead. I think they needed help getting past the research stage – they weren’t quite sure what step they should take next.

I made the large grid and the boys measured the buildings, green spaces, and building - using a ruler and being as precise as possible.

A city grid project from the book, Cities. I made the large grid and the boys measured the buildings, green spaces, and water features – using a ruler and being as precise as possible. Then, they laid out their city.

Third, I asked them who we might visit and speak to about cities. There were suggestions of city hall or the city welcome center. I think I mentioned a city planner and they both thought that was a great idea. So, I called a local city planner and set up a meeting with him…and it was fabulous. The city planner also had two co-workers come and talk to the two boys about what it takes to plan a city and keep it running. They learned that city planning was a complicated process that involved a lot of different people and departments. I think that this was more powerful than any of the other research they did. It certainly stuck with A, my son’s friend, as he has added “city planner” to his list of possible job prospects.

City grid

City grid

And since the city planner and his co-workers were so generous with their time and expertise, it was only right that I ask the boys to write thank you notes. They did a first draft and then made corrections and re-wrote their final draft. We discussed writing concepts without having to make a big deal out of it – and it demonstrates that good manners are important.

This week, they will be presenting their final project to the group as this is our last meeting for the Fall. I’m excited for them and I know that they are anxious to share what they have made.

Another project suggestions from the Cities book, make an aqueduct.

Another project suggestion from the Cities book, learn about ancient Roman city planning and make an aqueduct.