Students in Ben Collman's Juneau-Douglas High School physics classes were drilling holes in wood, poring through piles of screws, and cutting wire and metal rods late last month as they built motorized vehicles that could capture a flag.
The contest, prepped by lessons in motor analysis and gears, took up much of the fourth quarter.
"We have kind of a complicated design," said Emily Cotter, a senior in one group of five students.
They were making a large boxy "car" from which would issue a smaller car attached by an umbilical cord. The little car would hook onto the flag and be spooled back into the big car, which would then move back to home base.
"I like (the project) because I don't think of things in terms of gears and motors, so this is a completely new way to learn," Cotter said.
New to her perhaps, but project-based learning has been promoted since at least 1918, when Columbia Teachers College professor William Kirkpatrick published a widely distributed pamphlet. A year later someone probably asked schools to get back to the basics.
People who write about instructional methods may take more extreme views of America's classrooms than what actually exists. Each side thinks the other method dominates our schools to their detriment.
In practice, most teachers blend a variety of instructional methods. Many still lecture, lead the class in discussions, assign readings and drill students with worksheets, and the same teachers use projects to varying degrees.
Collman, who inherited the project from previous physics teachers, is glad he did it because it gives students the opportunity to apply what they've learned, and it keeps seniors interested as the school year comes to a close.
But he said it takes a lot of preparation to add academics to the hands-on work. The academics came from a group lab and individual tests on motors, plus lectures, sample problems and a test on gearing. In other words, traditional methods.
"If I'm not doing something to make sure they see the physics and use the physics, I think it would be largely absent. They'd just cadge (the vehicles) together and hopefully they'd work," Collman said.
And he said there's a sacrifice with projects. "We're spending all fourth quarter on this. We could cover three additional topics if we had the additional time," he said.
Jonathan Smith recently asked his mostly sophomore biology students at JDHS to research a scientific topic with public interest, such as AIDS or pollution from human waste in Juneau, and write a brief persuasive essay on it.
The project took three weeks - one for research, one for writing and editing, and one to create a Web page. Smith knows exactly what didn't get covered because of the project - how plants and animals are scientifically classified - but he said it was worth it.
The chance to learn how to make a Web site enticed students to want to do the project; essays aren't a big draw with them. But along the way students learned to judge the credibility of research sources. Students had to do a bibliography, and their essays were judged by how well they defined the issue and how many arguments they supported with evidence.
"I'm proud of the process it put the kids through," Smith said.
His classes include a broad range of abilities. Some students struggle with basic reading comprehension. Others already have their own businesses. The project was able to take both kinds of kids, challenge them and bring them further along in biology, writing, analytical and interpretive skills, and in discerning reputable information, he said.
Janet Lopez, who teaches English and social studies at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, and Kris Mercer, who teaches science and math, prepared their sixth-graders for projects on ancient Greece and Rome with three months of more traditional instruction.
"You can't teach projects without having a foundation of direct instruction," Lopez said.
They covered meaty topics such as Aristotle and the scientific method, simple machines, mapping the area, architecture, the Persian wars, Athenian democracy, trade routes and the play "Antigone."
The students then spent a month researching a topic and creating and presenting computer-generated PowerPoint computerized slide presentations. The theme was how some element of ancient culture has influenced modern times.
Project-based learning "enables all levels of performance," Lopez said. "This is a very mixed group. With a project, everybody can be challenged and can and do rise to the occasion, so that open-endedness is a wonderful thing. It enables all kids to be successful and to be challenged."
Skits, posters, models, mobiles, videos and PowerPoint slides are common products of project-based learning. Advocates often say projects appeal to different learning styles, such as the visual or the hands-on. Teachers like projects because they provide a variety of avenues for success.
"It's really hands-on, and that helps me a lot because I'm very visual," said Juneau eighth-grader Shalom Schrader late last month. "I have to see people do it and do it myself before I get it. I find sometimes if I'm reading a textbook and I don't find it interesting, I forget a majority of what I'm reading."
"I'm into technology, and I did pretty much all the editing on this," said seventh-grader Clay Wertheimer, showing a visitor a video he and other students made of their skit based on "The Odyssey."
"One of the good things about project-based is you get to choose your project. You get to learn some skills you'd like to explore further, instead of just having to write an essay or something," he said.
But should schools play to students' strengths or should they improve their weaknesses, such as in reading and writing? And are projects a good way to improve skills?
Dzantik'i Heeni seventh-grader Aaron Hughes said he would rather be assessed by tests than by projects.
"I like tests more than projects. Either you know the information or you don't," he said. "With projects it's more how you communicate your knowledge."
Projects have a place at Thunder Mountain Academy, a private school in Juneau for grades five through eight, but so do a lot of teacher-based instruction, exercises and brief hands-on activities.
"Parents have specifically requested that we not be a project-based curriculum," said Headmaster Paul Berg. "That is not to say we don't do projects. But it's part of an integrated approach to teaching.
"Parents wanted an emphasis on basic computational skills, grammar and basic writing skills. Projects are very good activities for applying skills and refining skills you already have. But they may not be the best way for learning new skills," Berg said.
Sylvia Chard, a University of Alberta professor who encourages the project method, suggested that students' weaknesses can be dealt with in teacher-directed instruction, although projects sometimes help students by coming at their problem in a different way or by giving them a reason to learn a skill.
"The big scoop is they're not teaching anything through this stuff," said Siegfried Engelmann, a University of Oregon professor of education who favors highly interactive lessons between teachers and students based on the teacher's script.
"This whole scheme is based on really a simple-minded notion of how kids learn. It just assumes if kids are motivated they're going to learn. They've obviously never looked at kids who have trouble reading and are motivated."
Projects raise other concerns about skill-building.
When students work in groups and are going to get a group grade, they tend to assign tasks to the students who already are best at doing them.
Jim Cleere of Co-nect, a Cambridge, Mass.,-based school reform company that promotes projects, said he sees that a lot and doesn't recommend that students do only one piece of a project.
"I think it's a big mistake to use it as, 'This kid is good at art, so he gets to be the artist on the team,'" he said.
A common concern of parents is that one kid - theirs - is doing all the work.
John Kern, chairman of the Extended Learning Parent Advisory Committee in Juneau, supports projects as a way for children to go beyond the curriculum and to learn to work with their peers.
"But higher performers often end up carrying a lot of the weight in project-based learning, and that's a complaint we often hear from parents on the committee," he said.
Other parents are concerned that their kids don't learn much from projects because they're the quiet ones, said Leah Vukmir, president of Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, based in Milwaukee.
Graduating JDHS senior Cal Craig said he's been in group projects in which one person did the work. But teams can accomplish more than individuals, he said. He was part of a team that won the Alaska regional National Ocean Sciences Bowl, partly for writing a management plan for the Mendenhall Watershed.
"I prefer to work in a group. If I can't think of ideas or know how to do something, the others will," he said.
A broader concern is whether projects are academically rigorous.
"A lot of project-based learning that I have seen doesn't have the substance that justifies the amount of time these projects take," said Smith, the JDHS biology teacher. "The depth to which the standards are met, to me, sometimes seems shallow."
Cleere, of Co-nect, said good projects should meet the state's or school district's academic standards. Teachers should identify what big ideas they want students to get out of the project, and let the students explore a topic in depth. A good project asks a question that can't be answered easily, he said.
Should parents be concerned that many projects, with their visual or oral emphasis, don't include a lot of writing, especially of abstract thinking? Apart from science fair projects, Juneau students speak of being asked to write only one- or two-page essays - if anything.
"We definitely recommend strong reading and writing evidence in student work," said Cleere, a former teacher. He looks for extensive and reflective writing in projects, especially with middle school and high school students.
Chard said students should be writing lengthy pieces, not short answers. But she faults not only teachers' low expectations in some projects, but traditional instruction, which emphasizes "short questions and short answers." Chard, who is British, said her son wrote 12-page papers every week in England when he was 12 and 13.
Other advocates of learning-by-doing say projects should result in a demonstration that shows what skills have been learned, not a report about something.
"What do you have afterwards?" asks Roger Schank, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University. "Do you have a report? Because that's not a real project."
Craig, the graduating senior, said students have become adept at writing short essays, and might just slap something together for the teacher. They might work harder for an oral presentation.
"When you put yourself in front of an audience, you really want to know what you're talking about," he said.
Because projects sometimes seek at least to simulate a real-world experience, the reading often isn't in textbooks and the writing sometimes isn't a conventional essay, but it can add up to a rich experience.
As part of the study of the Middle Ages, Lopez' Dzantik'i Heeni students created books of varied writings and drawings based on primary sources. One student's book included a letter about the mistreatment of Jews, a drawing with captions about differences between the rich and poor, a written sermon, a timeline with explanatory text, and a written life of a knight.
With this sort of project, rather than reading from a textbook, "they can imagine it better and I think they can remember it better," Lopez said. "I think they have a passion to do it."
Projects can touch on topics textbooks don't because they require students to look at other sources.
"It's very enriching. If we didn't do something like this, it would be very spotty," Lopez said.
"If you do a project, you can get on the Internet," said Dzantik'i Heeni student Marlaina Nelson. "If you're just reading a book, you just get what the book says."
Part of a wide-ranging project on the Renaissance at Dzantik'i Heeni included looking at whether Juneau was in a state of "rebirth." Groups of students looked at such indicators as the local golf course or the comfort of passengers on state ferries.
"I learned much more because it was hands-on and we got to interview real people who had the experience of that job," said sixth-grader Ellie Sica.
Covering the content
Critics say it's the project method that makes for a spotty education because students won't share a specific body of knowledge, which is what some parents want from a curriculum. It's common in projects for students to cover one part of the topic themselves and rely on presentations by other students to learn the rest of the material.
Hughes, a Dzantik'i Heeni seventh-grader, said students don't all learn the same things from projects, or necessarily learn as much as they would with traditional teaching methods.
"You learn a wider variety of things (traditionally). When you do projects, you learn more about one thing," said Hughes.
Hughes did a very accomplished diorama on Native subsistence in Southeast Alaska, combining models with explanatory text and a timeline. But he said if he had to write an essay about subsistence he would have to study about Natives in the Lower 48, as well.
So what if students don't learn the same things, says Alfie Kohn, a Boston-area writer on education who favors inquiry-based learning.
"Why would we assume that a uniform, one-size-fits-all curriculum is appropriate, when kids are quite different from one another?"
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.