LRNG: “Passion Projects” Encourage Creativity, Connected Learning, and STEM Interests

August 24, 2015
By Educator Innovator

Part of the fun of going to a carnival is doing the initial lap around the park to check out all of the booths and rides they have to offer. Deep-fried everything, bumper cars, the Gravitron—your quest is to sample it all until you can eat no more (or your tickets run out). You probably didn’t need three corn dogs, but the variance in activities makes for a better experience than just going on the Ferris wheel for hours. Liberty Elementary, in Riverside, California, is bringing this idea inside and outside of the classroom, by building multi-themed learning stations for students to explore interests and produce “passion projects.”

Without having to leave the school campus, the LRNG Innovation Challenge grant-winning team created several student-centered, hands-on learning spaces. In a district that is working toward a personalized learning model, which emphasizes the importance of a student-centric approach over a teacher-driven one, teachers at Liberty Elementary interviewed students to identify interest areas and learning styles, ensuring that the project would keep students excited and strengthen skill sets. With full support from other instructors and school administration, a resource teacher and the team leading literacy coach, Norma Rodriguez, crafted and oversaw the project plan. As they gathered the information on student interests, Rodriguez also worked with teachers to match their personal interests and areas of expertise with the student activities.

The results? A video production station, a maker station, and garden project. Additional interests also led to the creation of a still-developing computer science and coding club. These stations are used as “pull out” learning spaces for all students during the regular school day, with 300-400 students creating every week. “The engagement is beyond anything we would have imagined. It has been such a motivator for them,” says Rodriguez. “They are thinking of the things they do outside of their classroom and how they can bring that knowledge inside the classroom. They are learning to apply those skills.”

In the project’s initial run, the technology-centric stations were the main attraction. The green-screen station provided opportunities for students to learn video-making skills and use green-screen technology to create immersive advertisements for community events, research projects, and classroom reports.

The maker station creates opportunities to build, tinker, and “make” projects that build upon interests in design and engineering. As with the other stations, participants document and share their work with each other via a shared Google Drive and YouTube channel. Students dove into computer science last year using Scratch to learn basic coding skills that included game design, music and sound, and storytelling forms. The positive energy from students being invited to take a more hands-on approach to their own learning is already deeply felt on the school campus. Rodriguez shares, “What excites me the most is being able to motivate students and help them believe in themselves. They will do great things when they are having fun as they learn.”

Although not yet as popular as the other stations, the team anticipates that the garden club will gain steam with students interested in both food science and STEM fields. Students will take on the roles of young scientists and botanists, building skill sets by cultivating, monitoring, and conducting experiments with plant life. In addition to students using the garden as a laboratory, the team is also hoping to use the garden to build knowledge about gardening as a food source. Students will have the opportunity to engage in conversation about nutrition, and the team hopes to incorporate activities that nurture students’ expressed interest in cooking.

Liberty Elementary is part of a low-income community, with 93% of students receiving free or reduced lunch. There are a number of obstacles they face, but on a campus that they call a “No Excuses University,” the school community takes on a mentality of working hard to thrive amidst limitations. The relationships built between students and teachers are important to all involved, and the LRNG project has added weight to this as well as peer-to-peer connectivity.

The school—and with district-wide implementation of similar projects, the greater local community—is inspiring young people to indulge personal interests in the service of richer learning experiences. The team stands by the mission to “Nurture and facilitate innovators’ individual passion for learning. Through voice, choice, pace, and path, learners will contribute to mankind’s digitally connected world.”

In the upcoming school year, the project will work to incorporate students’ other stated interests like sports, cooking, and traditional design. For the team, the best part of the project has been seeing students develop maker mindsets and take on more inventive learning approaches based on the styles and elements that best suit them. Rodriguez points to a quote from Galileo as the program’s ethos, “You cannot teach anybody anything. You can only help them discover it within themselves.”

By Maranatha Bivens