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ISB Plugs Project-Based Learning

By Tom Fearon
ISB Plugs Project-Based Learning

Students at the International School of Beijing (ISB) closed their textbooks and opened their minds when designing, planning, and carrying out a range of projects that aligned their passion with hands-on learning last June.
As a leader in experiential learning, the school’s week-long, project-based learning (PBL) program required high school students to use their creativity and critical thinking to create a product or presentation.
Each team was given a budget of 3,500 yuan (US$570) and allowed to choose a project that appealed to their interest and helped them develop deeper learning competencies required for success in college, career, and civic life.
Clear for takeoff
Wistan Chou took his passion for robotics to new heights when he led a team of a dozen peers in building four quadcopters. Inspired by a TED Talk about drones, Chou was determined to try his hand at building a quadcopter capable of being used for aerial photography and humanitarian purposes, such as delivering medicines to remote regions.
“We became really interested in quadcopters after reading about them and looking at potential applications,” said Chou, who is executive president of ISB’s Robotics Club.
There were many challenges along the way, including ensuring the software and hardware were compatible and recalibrating the motors after it was discovered they worked unevenly. Despite a few hurdles in acquiring parts and a couple of rocky test flights, persistence paid off in the end.
“Compared to being in a classroom, [PBL] is definitely better,” said Chou, who aspires to study computer science and one day design robots for Google. Earlier last year, ISB students’ interest in how robotics shape our planet was piqued following a March talk by Dr. Ashley Stroupe, a NASA engineer and the first woman to drive on Mars using the Spirit rover.
Objection overruled
Another popular PBL initiative embraced by students was a mock trial based on The Prosecutor v. Mabo (Child Soldiers) set in the International Criminal Court. The case involved a rebel army commander accused of using child soldiers in armed conflicts.
Provided with the facts of the case, relevant law, and witness statements for each character, 17 ISB students played the roles of judge, defense, and prosecution in a drama-packed trial.
“No matter how compelling the evidence presented was, the result ultimately hinged on the debate,” said Tina Elias, who represented the prosecution. “[The mock trial] provided a chance for us to explore our interest in a future legal career, which is what most of us wanted to achieve in this PBL,” she added.
Although Beijing is a long way from The Hague, no detail was overlooked as students sought to replicate the same atmosphere as presides in the International Criminal Court.
“We examined how court cases play out in the smallest details, such as what a courtroom looks like and the type of language used during a trial,” said Emily Ye, who acted as the judge. “I listened to both sides’ arguments beforehand, and they were both really good. It was fun to see them rebut each other because they didn’t know each other’s arguments.”
Just as the quadcopter project attracted members of ISB’s Robotics Club, many students in the mock trial already had a passion for public speaking, as proven by their membership in the Debate Club and Model United Nations.
Max Bernell, a keen orator who reveled in his role as head of the defense team, said student empowerment was one of his most memorable PBL experiences. “I felt I took on a leadership role by writing agendas for our meetings. Minimal teacher support [in PBL] encourages students to take charge,” he said.
Educational ecosystem
The core idea of PBL is for students to take interest in real-life problems and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. For Matthew Chu and Nikhil Kaimal, this involved creating a self-sustaining hydroponics unit.
Costing less than 500 yuan (US$81), the duo’s project was one of the most cost-effective PBLs at ISB. The unit consisted of two tubs; the bottom was used for fish and the top housed a small garden using clay pebbles. Water from the garden trickled down to the aquarium below, while fish waste was pumped up and used as fertilizer for plants.
“We originally wanted to build a self-sustaining fish tank, but one of our teachers told us we could expand on the idea and turn it into a hydroponics project,” said Chu.
Matt Durnin, board chairman of the Jane Goodall Institute China, was enlisted to help the pair. Durnin was able to show Chu and Kaimal diagrams of large-scale hydroponics systems he had designed to give the two students ideas.
“I learned a lot about DIY work. You can’t just buy a whole system and expect it to work; you have to plan it in terms of pricing and building,” said Chu.
“Everything looks easy on paper, but when you put it into practice there are so many little things you have to get right that you don’t always anticipate,” said Kaimal.

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