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PBL in progress in Greene County, NC

Garcia has been on leading edge of authentic learning approach for years

Published December 23, 2020

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The greatest resource in our classrooms is not Internet-enabled devices, hands-on products, or even our knowledgeable teachers. Rather, it is the students themselves – their own energy, curiosity, and creativity. Classroom approaches that can tap into these receive a turbocharge in engagement and effectiveness.

One approach gaining attention, especially among our nation’s STEM-savvy educators, is project-based learning (PBL). PBL requires students to cooperate to create a product of their own design as part of a project that is the core of an activity or unit. For this reason, it is tuned to the human instincts to socialize, explore, and create.

But just because PBL is keenly suited to our human nature doesn’t mean the knowledge needed to implement this strategy comes naturally. To help our readers along the learning curve, we reached out to José Garcia, STEM director of North Carolina’s Greene County School District, for a real look at PBL in action.

Under Garcia’s STEM stewardship, Greene County has become a true hot spot for PBL knowledge and innovation. Greene County uses a framework of Grand Challenges that literally crosses the curriculum; PBL is an inherent part of these Grand Challenges. Students, in some cases from separate classes in complementary subject areas, form teams of no more than eight students to collaborate on the creation of a prototype product. The prompts, or challenges, relate to real-world problems and include cultural connections that span the globe. The summation comes when students present their product to their peers.

“I’ve learned over the years that with PBL you apply a process,” said Garcia, explaining that this process could unfold in different ways but that it must end with the creation of a product. Other necessary aspects in the process include data collection, collaboration, STEM-connection, and media literacy. “But there’s also a deeper component with PBL,” he added, “where you are taking the skills and the STEM elements and applying it to a real-world situation.”

So, what does a PBL Grand Challenge look like in Greene County?


Last fall at the high school, two classes that would normally work in silos – STEM Art and STEM-Honors Sustainability – combined at intervals to form student teams. Teams were challenged with designing a new monument for a country of their choice. But there was a twist: the monument had to generate and store electricity. Art students dove into researching the architecture and culture of the country. The sustainability class considered the technical aspects of power generation and storage.

After discussion and brainstorming, each student created their own blueprint. Elements from each were used to create the teams’ final blueprints. Finally, it was time to create the prototype products. From wheels to gears to motors to solar panels, Greene County makes use of many Pitsco components as useful resources for students during the construction process. Such a library of STEM pieces is a great fit for the open-ended nature of the Grand Challenges. (Garcia stated that he also uses Pitsco kits to help ease new teachers into the PBL process.)

The final products were awesome. One team, having discovered the Japanese culture’s affinity for nature and landscaping, created pinwheels that could blend in with native trees in a pleasing and harmonious way. The pinwheels were windmills that captured and stored wind power. Another team found a different way to generate electricity from wind. Discovering the role domes play in the architecture of India’s palaces, the team’s prototype palace was capped with a standard rounded ventilator that doubled as a wind turbine.


And, of course, as a capstone, the students present their products to their peers. Presenting is not actually an indispensable part of the process as Garcia defines it, but it is one he believes is valuable nonetheless.

Not only do students present for their grade peers, they also present for students in lower grades. High school students present to middle schoolers and to elementary classes. Consequently, before middle schoolers ever began their own Grand Challenges, polished finished products had already been modeled for them.

“It really helps speed up the quality of the projects,” said Garcia. “When I first did this with the middle school, we didn’t tell the students they had to dress up or that they had to use a trifold. . . . But by bringing the high school students down, the students started dressing up, being more professional. They implemented some of the same pieces they saw the high school students do.”

The hope is that the same effect will happen when the elementary students begin their project-based learning Junior Challenges, having witnessed presentations from middle schoolers and high schoolers.


Positive changes have also been registered in the lives and demeanors of many individual students as well. Asked if the Grand Challenges help bring students out of their shell, Garcia was emphatic. “Definitely! We survey students after each semester. In those surveys, students talk about how the projects have helped them with different skills from presenting to paying attention to self-esteem.” He noted that parents have echoed these remarks.

A tool that has proven very beneficial for student development is the use of rubrics. “Having customized rubrics gives students an idea of what to work on to develop over time.” Garcia noted that he would like to eventually push this down to the kindergarten level, reasoning that 12 years of individualized assessment will yield spectacular results in high school graduates.

Every STEM director loves to see their work bringing student transformations. And Garcia, being 18 years in the district, is no exception. “For me, it is nice to see this culture shift happen that is inclusive of all students. Students are innovating and collaborating and are eager to share what they’ve built. Every student has a chance to engage and participate in STEM education with the focus on project-based learning that we have in the district.”

True PBL pro

José Garcia began his teaching career in Greene County School District in North Carolina 18 years ago. Over that span, he has taught science and/or technology in every grade from 6-12. Now, serving as STEM director for the district, he oversees a multifaceted program that includes a STEM lab with Pitsco Modules at the middle school level, a robotics program featuring TETRIX® (and even a mechanized Mr. Robot that students can interact with), a STEM ambassador program that connects students to the community, and, of course, a far-reaching project-based learning emphasis.

Garcia’s PBL exploration began when he was a teacher. He said he believed in the process and soon took note that test scores seemed to benefit as well. Those are important, he said, but added, “I want to make sure that students are not just doing well on assessments but that they’re also acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to be successful.”

Garcia is also an Apple Distinguished Educator and a faculty member for the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

“I wanted [Missions] because I know how impactful STEM can be for the entire school, the entire school culture. I’m all about the whole child. It’s not just about reading or writing or math. It’s about every child has some talent somewhere; you just have to find it.”

– Jay Parker, principal, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

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