About 100 Olentangy seventh-graders took to the streets of Delaware late last month, interviewing residents, city leaders and business owners to find out what's important to them.
The Olentangy Shanahan Middle School students' field trip was part of a semester-long project that requires them to research the demographics and economics of the city and create a proposal for a new business or service that they'll present to local leaders.
Their teacher, Jill Simpson, has headed up the project with previous classes, but this year, it's become the overarching theme for all of their lessons. That's because Simpson's students are part of a Project Based Learning program at the school that kicked off this year.
Seventh-graders in the program have a flexible schedule that allows them to work on core subjects for half of the day and spend group time working on a project the other half.
"PBL projects are not fluff projects, they have strong curricular ties, and I realized we could really take something like this that I would have done anyway and beef it up to give it a more real-world, meaningful focus," Simpson said.
Simpson jump-started the process of bringing PBL to the school last November after she visited an all-PBL charter school in San Diego called High Tech High.
Previously, the city project wouldn't have been incorporated into core classes and students instead would spend time outside of class writing the business proposal.
The project-based learning experiment is being supported by TRECA in Marion, which has supplied technology that promotes involved projects such as this one, designed to teach students not just about their county government seat, but also about public speaking, interviewing, teamwork, writing to a particular audience, mapping, survey sampling and the scientific method.
Seventh-grade teachers Jamie Thomas, Chris Tressel and Bob Cline are working with Simpson to ensure the program and the city project are cohesive between classes.
"We meet every day about it and so it's a lot of work, but it's been really fun at the same time," Simpson said. "We're seeing that students are more engaged and I know that when they care about a project, that's what really lights the fire for learning."
Students split into teams of five on the first day of class to focus on their central question: What makes Delaware an attractive place to live for a diverse population? Next, they chose what demographic group they would study and propose a business idea to serve.
During the second week of classes, students were paid a visit by City Manager Tom Homan, United Way of Delaware County Vice President Barb Lyon, Main Street Delaware member and Delaware County Library communications specialist Nicole Fowles, and Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Holly Quaine.
"At the end of the presentation, one of my kids approached Barb Lyon and said, 'I'm interested in volunteering,' " Simpson recalled. "A member of a community organization handing a business card to a 12-year-old gave me chills, because that's what this is all about. We're trying to take kids out of school and outside of their own little world."
On Sept. 18, students and their parent chaperones were given free range of the city to chat with the locals, visit businesses and restaurants and pose questions to city workers.
Varun Gopal's group stopped by City Hall to speak with Public Information Officer Lee Yoakum. Because his group is focusing on immigrants who move to the city, students asked plenty of questions about city demographics and foreign-language classes available at Ohio Wesleyan University.
"We noticed that there are maps and brochures for public transportation when we came (to City Hall), and that's useful to know because someone who moves here from a different country might not know how to drive," Gopal said.
After visiting campus and downtown coffee shops, Evelyn Vull's group had a better understanding of what college students might like to see added to Delaware.
"Because they're in college, a lot of them can drink and right now they have to go to Polaris for that, so we think it's important that they have more downtown entertainment that they can walk to so they're not drinking and driving," she said.
She said group may propose a business plan for a quiet place to study outside of the library -- something the city lacks, according to college students.