The Great Salt Lake Institute needed help.
With a mission to connect people to the Great Salt Lake through research and education, the GSLI, as it's known colloquially, works hard to educate Utahns about the famous state landmark. But the GSLI team had recently become concerned that their urgent messages weren’t reaching enough people—especially from a younger audience.
So in fall 2022, when Rowland Hall’s seventh-grade English teacher, Jill Gerber, and seventh-grade science teacher, Anna Wolfe, approached the GSLI about partnering on a student-led, project-based learning opportunity that would support one of the GSLI’s current challenges, the team jumped at the opportunity.
“Anna and Jill approached me with their idea for a collaborative project and asked about a problem that we as an institute needed help with,” said Carly Biedul, GSLI coordinator and Rowland Hall’s former Lower School science teacher. “We know we need to expand outreach—especially to younger people, as they are the future scientists and changemakers—and knew the seventh graders would offer a new perspective. And since I previously taught many of the students, I know how creative they are.”
Project-Based Learning: A Brief Overview
Jill and Anna’s English-meets-science collaboration is one example of the many exciting project-based learning (PBL) opportunities happening at Rowland Hall this year. While not new in education circles—or at Rowland Hall—PBL has been regaining popularity in recent years because of its proven approach to inspire and motivate learners of all ages.
Through PBL, students are more motivated, and learn more meaningfully, broadly, and deeper than in traditional structures.—Wendell Thomas, director of teaching and learning
“When project-based learning is done well, it incorporates strategies that we know help students learn,” said Wendell Thomas, director of teaching and learning.
Explained simply, the PBL approach is a way to provide student-led, active learning opportunities tied to real-world connections, from expanding the GSLI's reach to researching ways to help communities thrive. The magic of PBL comes from how it engages and transforms students. Unlike assignments that heavily rely on teacher-defined parameters, PBL empowers students to drive their own learning by asking questions and applying their findings, ideas, and observations to the problem, scenario, or task at hand.
Wendell explained that high-quality PBL supports students developmentally, as proven by self-determination theory—the idea that, thanks to humans’ inherently curious nature, we pursue learning and development opportunities when our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met. In other words, when we’re allowed to engage in self-guided learning, seek out and master challenges, and establish close emotional bonds and secure attachments with others—all of which are elements of high-quality PBL—we want to continue to learn.
“Through PBL, students are more motivated, and learn more meaningfully, broadly, and deeper than in traditional structures,” said Wendell.
Creating a High-Quality PBL Experience
Anna and Jill knew that creating a high-quality PBL experience for their students would require a solid foundation: a partnership with a community member who had a genuine need. Though they knew their students wouldn’t be engaged in the project until after winter break, Jill and Anna set out to identify their partner early in the school year, seeking one, in Jill’s words, “whose work would be relevant to students and would have social value, and who, as a person, is relatable to the students.” They saw Carly, and the GSLI, as that partner. With Carly’s knowledge of the school and her connection to Great Salt Lake, they knew the partnership would offer an ideal way for students to make an impact on a local, and familiar, issue.
Jill and Anna prepared for the project by building knowledge that the students would need, including an understanding of abiotic and biotic interactions within ecosystems, as well as research and presentation skills. They further explored what lake advocacy looks like by joining FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake for a day program that helped build students’ familiarity with and connections to Great Salt Lake.
In addition to identifying a community partner, Jill and Anna prepared for the project by building knowledge that the students would need, including an understanding of abiotic and biotic interactions within ecosystems so they would understand the fragility of Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem and have a common language, as well as research and presentation skills, including design thinking, decision filters, and the components of quality research. They further explored what lake advocacy looks like by joining FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake for a day program at the lake, which also helped to build students’ familiarity with and connections to Great Salt Lake. “We thought that would help them feel a sense of urgency and connectedness to this problem,” said Anna.
By late January, the teachers were ready to introduce the students to the project, and brought Carly to campus to share information about the GSLI as well as to present the institute’s problem, which was simplified to a question that would guide the students’ work over the following three weeks: How do we broaden our reach to new audiences so our community understands and prioritizes the local impact of the Great Salt Lake? The students were then able to ask clarifying questions that would help guide their work.
Looking back, the teachers remember the seventh graders seemed understandably nervous about the PBL task. “I think they were intimidated by a big, open-ended question, which is so different for them,” said Anna. Many students initially questioned why the GSLI would give seventh graders this assignment—if adults couldn’t find a solution, how could they? Student Will W. remembered that he believed the group could take on the task, but still felt concerned about its many unknowns. “I felt a sense of honor because they trusted me, and I knew that my peers and I were ready to complete this task,” he explained, “but I was a little concerned about who I would be working with and how they would contribute. Then, I was concerned about what the guidelines would be and what we were and weren't allowed to do. Finally, I was concerned that I would have to really be a creative and thoughtful student, and I would have to really think hard about it.” Students’ early concerns were understandable—and natural.
“Like most real-world problems, this project was challenging and uncomfortable,” said Jill, but she and Anna were prepared to coach the seventh graders, especially during the earliest stages of the project, while they built their confidence. Through protocols designed to clarify the GSLI’s problem and craft solution hypotheses, each group, assigned by the teachers, created an initial research plan, then leaned on the skills and knowledge they had been building to identify the solutions they thought would best help the GSLI meet its goal. They also identified a target audience for each solution, then started the research phase, a step that included conducting their own original field research in Salt Lake's 9th and 9th neighborhood in early February. Through it all, the teachers provided opportunities to check in.
“Every day there were goals that we were hitting,” said Anna, “and at the end of each week, students had a ‘share-out,’ or summary presentation, to give.” This not only broke the work into more bite-sized pieces, but also got students comfortable with presenting. “My teachers had us do weekly share-outs about what our group was doing. During that time they would give us feedback,” said Vivi K. “That was a great way to gain confidence.” Jill and Anna further built kids’ confidence by bringing in two guest speakers who talked to them about crafting field market questions, including how to ask unbiased questions, and professional presentation skills.
Additionally, the teachers continuously reminded the students about their very real capabilities—the reason, they said, that Carly enthusiastically agreed to partner with them. They reminded the students that, as members of one of the age groups that the institute wants to reach, they already knew what engages kids their age and inspires them to act. Their perspectives were assets. Instead of thinking of themselves as unqualified because they were students, Jill and Anna encouraged them to think of themselves as competent business consultants who were supporting a problem that desperately needs attention.
“At the end, it clicked that they knew more about their topic than the institute, so they were the experts,” Anna said. “I think that was a cool feeling for all of them.”
The Impact of PBL
On February 15 and 16, the days of their presentations, the seventh graders swapped their Rowland Hall tees and sweatshirts for dressier duds, then loaded onto a bus that would take them to the Westminster College campus, home of the GSLI.
“You could definitely feel the nerves,” Anna remembered. “Putting their professional dress on and going to the location made it more real; presenting outside school added authenticity.” Student Tori S. agreed, saying her pre-presentation nerves were the most challenging part of the assignment for her. “When we were on the bus on our way to Westminster to present I was so nervous,” she remembered. Around her, students were practicing their presentations, sitting quietly, or taking in last-minute advice. “My teachers helped me build my confidence by talking to me,” said Mina B. “Ms. Gerber gave me a pep talk about public speaking and how I shouldn't be scared.”
After arriving at Westminster, the seventh graders made their way to the business school auditorium. As they took their seats, Jill and Anna reminded the group how the morning would run, noting that Carly and Cora would sit in the front row, where they would take notes on each recommendation, then ask follow-up questions.
As each group took the stage, it soon became clear how much time and thought the students had put into their solutions for the GSLI. Ideas were proposed for community members as young as eight to those in their 40s, and for groups from students to families to even skiers and snowboarders. Solutions varied too: many groups touted the benefits of expanding the GSLI’s social media presence, showing examples of how TikTok engages younger audiences or how nonprofit organizations connect to followers on Instagram and Facebook. One group recommended museum exhibits and educational kits to spread information about the lake; others highlighted community events, murals, posters, and stickers. As each presentation wrapped, a calm seemed to settle over the room. Those who had presented felt confident in their work, while those still waiting realized how prepared they were. “After seeing other groups present, I started to calm down,” Tori remembered. “In the end, presenting wasn't even that scary."
We were beyond impressed. I had high expectations and they exceeded them. I took copious notes the whole time and learned so much.—Carly Biedul, GSLI coordinator
Anna recognized how the setting of the college auditorium—alongside factors such as working toward a deadline and presenting to a real client—solidified the students’ view of themselves as knowledge experts. “They realized that role way more than if they had done it in my classroom,” she said. Vivi, for one, had a strong experience that confirmed that role when she saw Carly taking a picture of one of her slides. “I was proud because she was actually going to use some part of our idea,” she said.
In the audience, Carly felt like a sponge as she soaked up the ideas that would help her team reach more people. She was surprised by the extensive research the seventh graders had done, and appreciated how they included examples from similar organizations. “We were beyond impressed,” she said. “I had high expectations and they exceeded them. I took copious notes the whole time and learned so much.”
And thanks to the PBL approach, the students knew the excitement of the day would last long after their presentations were finished, as some of their recommendations would go on to be put into action by the GSLI—and that they may be a part of that work too.
“I told the presenting groups I will need their help in the future, and plan to reach out as we implement their ideas,” said Carly, who said she is working to apply multiple student ideas at the GSLI. “It was pretty clear we need a better social media presence, so we will be expanding that soon. We are looking into a TikTok, as that seems to be where many young people get their news and information from. We were also inspired to have more events in the future, perhaps maybe a trivia night that one group alluded to.”
For Jill and Anna, watching the students blossom and receive validation for their innovative solutions supported their decision to devote substantial time to this new collaborative community partnership. “Jill and I were so blown away and so proud of them,” said Anna. “I think it was definitely the most unique moment of my teaching so far, to see students actually be business consultants and give meaningful solutions to a problem. It was really cool to see these kids go through the struggle and all of the emotion, but then to come out on the other side with actual information someone will use.”
Students recognized the benefits of the experience too. When asked to reflect on what they learned about themselves, they listed a wonderful mix of academic and professional skills, including leadership, motivation, time management, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, communication, creativity, public speaking, and how to apply research and analyses to a real-world project.
I felt honored and privileged that the GSLI gave seventh graders the opportunity to help solve Utah's greatest environmental problem.—Seventh grader Will W.
“I learned that I can do hard things, I can push myself to my limits and succeed,” shared Mina, who believes this opportunity helped her overcome a fear of public speaking and showcased her leadership abilities. “I am most proud that I stood out as a leader and led my group to a successful presentation. I overcame fears and ended up having a great time.”
The students also recognized the satisfaction that comes with contributing to real-world solutions. “I felt honored and privileged that the GSLI gave seventh graders the opportunity to help solve Utah's greatest environmental problem,” said Will. It’s a perspective that the teachers hope will keep the group motivated as they continue their educational journeys.
“They learned a ton about themselves,” Anna remarked, “and who knows how this experience will impact their future moving forward?”
It’s a reflection that’s also true for the GSLI—and will doubtlessly be true of other organizations who engage with Rowland Hall students in PBL projects that serve as opportunities to both strengthen our shared community and shape tomorrow’s leaders.