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Project-Based Learning Drives Action in the Classroom

The Learn by Doing philosophy has extended far beyond Cal Poly for Jim Bentley (Social Science, '95).

 Now a teacher at Elk Grove Elementary, he implements project-based learning in his fifth-and-sixth grade classrooms and advocates for project-based learning through a National Geographic fellowship.

Jim Bentley

Bentley brought the Geo Inquiry Initiative, a National Geographic project-based learning program with a geographic perspective and eye toward action, to his classroom. School teachers introduce students to Geo Inquiry projects that explore issues in their community and uncover possible solutions. The program allows students to ask questions, understand scenarios from a public policy perspective, and play authentic roles in the solution.

“Authenticity is important,” Bentley said. “I don’t want kids to do a project that’s going to be recycled or thrown away. I want them to do projects that will really be impactful.”

Bentley’s class in Elk Grove, Calif., embarked on a Geo Inquiry Initiative to uncover plastic waste issues in the Sacramento area. His students collected data, conducted surveys and field work, and put together a story map that explored the impacts of single-use plastic water bottles in the area. The project directly impacted change in their community.

“We have a new water bottle station at the park next to us because of that project,” Bentley said.

This is only one example of how his classes’ project-based learning quests created change in their community. These experiences are why he works as a National Geographic Fellow to advocate for Geo Inquiry and educate schoolteachers across the country on how to implement the project in their own classrooms. The program offers online training to help teachers understand the process.

Not only do these projects impact change, but Bentley said research has shown that project-based learning results in more rigorous learning and helps students retain more information. Project-based learning complements standard direct instruction because it connects dots between subjects that are traditionally kept separate in elementary school classrooms. Through projects like Geo Inquiry, students integrate knowledge from subjects like math, technology, English and public speaking to execute a well-rounded project — similar to how projects are conducted outside of the classroom.

“The whole Learn by Doing mantra has been the story of my 22 years of teaching: trying something, failing quickly, trying to evaluate what went wrong and picking up the pieces and building and trying again,” Bentley said. “That mindset of active learning and active participation, not being afraid of failure, being willing to go for big risks and robust goals — Cal Poly taught me it’s okay to try a moonshot and not succeed. You’re getting closer each time.”

Bentley invites the public to participate in his students’ latest Geo Inquiry project, which explores plastic in the ocean and the paths of plastic as it makes its way from inland suburbs to the ocean. Take the survey here, and watch a video tutorial created by students on how to complete the survey here.


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