How to Build Amazing Models Using Project-Based Learning

When I worked in England, subjects like art, social studies, music, religion, and science were categorized into blocks called “Topic” or “Theme”. All the subjects were taught according to the objectives of the National Curriculum, but revolved around the topic or inquiry question set out for that particular term. In some instances, students used project-based learning to achieve their learning goals.

During one term, the topic question was “What can we explore in our local area?”. I decided I wanted to focus on the local seaside amusement park called “Adventure Island”. Specifically, I wanted students to examine the rides and recreate them as part of our STEM lessons – kind of like creating a miniature amusement park. I shared this idea with my colleagues and they were happy to get on board! We decided that each class would use project-based learning to construct a local building or attraction. I chose Adventure Island.

Adventure Island

Where I taught, in Essex, there is a leisure pier in a town called Southend-on-Sea. It is the longest leisure pier in the world (built in 1830, and rebuilt several times after that), and one I have walked along several times. Every time I visit England I make sure to take a walk to the end, then take the little train back to the seafront. The local area is full of memories for me.

Photo by Futureshape – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Adventure Island originally started out as a garden that contained a few rides for children in 1918; then called “Sunken Gardens”. It redeveloped extensively throughout the 20th century.

The park (as many in Southend know it today) opened in 1976 and was known as “Peter Pan’s Playground”. Then the name changed to “Peter Pan’s Adventure Island”, then simply “Adventure Island”. It expanded in 1995 to include the land east of the pier. The park contains 33 rides, retail outlets, and food stalls.

Adventure Island is a popular spot, and many students who live in the local area would go there on their term holidays, or spend a day there on the weekend. They were all very familiar with the park and with the rides themselves. When I told them we’d be building the rides, they were so excited (and so was I!) We decided to dive right into the first step of project-based learning:

1. Investigate the history of the local area

In the weeks leading up to the project, we did a local study on Adventure Island. We learned about the history of the park, and its importance to the culture and reputation of Southend. We surveyed community members to find out what people liked most about the park. Furthermore, we took some time to read real-life accounts of people who visited the local area in decades past to understand how the park has changed over time. These lessons covered the history and geography components of our topic. 

We also investigated the impact of being “on the sea” and what that meant scientifically. The students explored different rocks that we might find by the sea, and investigated the air quality, weather patterns, and climate conditions in the area. They also explored how humans contribute to the changing climate in their local area. Although the park was a bit too far for us to walk to, we felt that we had developed a sufficient understanding of its history, geography, and weather patterns. Students were now ready to begin the second phase of project-based learning – designing!

2. Planning and designing stage

Prior to beginning the construction of the rides, I ordered some supplies. I knew we would need these in order to build strong, solid structures. I purchased:

Students were taught ahead of time how to handle these materials. They also learned about the steps they needed to take in order to properly measure, build, and finish their models. They needed to understand measurement, capacity, durability, and other scientific terms related to construction and stability first.

3. Preparation and selection of materials

Students began by finding a large piece of cardboard, or something similar to act as the base for their ride. For the group who built a roller coaster, this needed to be quite wide; it also needed to be very sturdy to support the wires and paper-mache. On the other hand, the group who built the drop-tower needed a relatively smaller base for their model. Groups needed to work together to discuss the materials they would need, select the appropriate pieces of cardboard, boxes, and other recycled materials; and finally, determine what everyone would be responsible for.

I worried that maybe students would fight and argue about who would be responsible for what, but surprisingly there were very few arguments. I felt grateful that the topic and location was something students were excited about, and that held real meaning to them, as it was a part of their local area and identity.

Related: 5 Simple Ways to Manage Conflict in Inquiry Learning

4. Framing out and constructing the rides

This was a tricky but crucial stage – students needed to look at their sketches and figure out how to construct the “bare bones” of their rides. They needed to determine:

  • What materials would be durable enough to withstand paper mache and layers of paint
  • How flexible their materials needed to be
  • How much of each material they would need to construct the entire model
  • What stages their model would need to be built in
  • How much time would they need to wait before building the next part of their model
  • What tasks they could complete between each stage of their construction
  • How many people would be needed to help during each construction stage

Related: How to Help Students Form Rich, Deep Inquiry Questions

Ensuring that their models could withstand paper mache and paint was challenging and required a lot of support from myself and my teaching assistant. This required us to help measure and cut materials, support parts of the ride while students taped and trimmed other parts, transport materials from one place to another, and intervene if issues popped up. Although this is usually the trickiest part of project-based learning, the first stage of construction went relatively smoothly for groups.

5. Paper mache (the messy part of project-based learning!)

The students in my class loved using paper mache. It’s a fun way for them to get their hands dirty, be creative, and see their artistic visions come to life. Of course, some students were not entirely fond of paper mache, so they worked on another component of the project while the other members of their group did the messy bit. Due to the nature of the models, some groups used paper towel and paste, while others used strips of newspaper and paste. Some groups even used tissue paper and paste to bulk out their models.

While it can be messy and difficult to clean up, using paper mache is a really fun material to use in the classroom. I always remind students that clean-up is a shared responsibility. Luckily, every class I have taught – whether in England or Canada – has understood and respected this principle. In some cases, we made cleaning up a timed game, where students had to wash their brushes, pick up loose scraps, re-organize the desks and chairs, sweep, and be sitting ready to be dismissed in under 5 minutes. Each time we worked on our projects, this time decreased incrementally. Although I realize this isn’t always practical for every class, it was a fun challenge for them, and one they embraced each time we worked on our models.

6. Painting and decorating

My students were really excited about the painting and decorating part of the project. They used photos as their guide to sketch out the lines, designs, and patterns on the rides, and used a colour selection tool to figure out which colours they needed to use. From there, they experimented with mixing different colours to achieve one that was as similar as possible to the actual colour of the ride.

Many of the students who shied away from the paper mache portion of the project were excited to contribute by painting. I am a huge advocate of the arts and love seeing students’ creativity shine. It was fun for me to watch students expertly mix paints, use different painting techniques, and evaluate their work. The levels of creativity and attention to detail really blew me away! It is a stage of project-based learning that really makes me smile.

While the painters worked, other group members contributed in different ways. For example, some groups decided they wanted to make a banner for the park; so they looked up the banner online, printed a picture, and created a scaled version to include. Other students chose decorative objects like fake grass and stones, gloss coating spray, glitter, and other fun elements to make their rides stand out.

Related: Creative Inquiry Questions About Art

7. The final presentation

After about 2-3 weeks (of about 2 STEM periods per week), the students had completed their models. We moved them into the gym and had the other classes take a gallery walk around and leave comments on sticky notes. The students were so thrilled to receive feedback about the quality of their craftsmanship, the accuracy of their designs, and the overall resemblance they had to the real rides at Adventure Island.

We discussed ways we could have improved our models and how we might have changed the designs, steps, colours, or anything else that was relevant to the outcome of the project. Students filled in self-reflection surveys and we talked about ways to improve how we communicate, share, and collaborate.

Project-Based Learning Takeaways

All-around, it was a great success! We even had people from the local area comment on their resemblance to the real rides during the school open house the following week. The students were so happy by the end of the project – not because it was finished, but because they learned so much about themselves along the way. They learned the importance of collaboration, communication, and teamwork. They learned the importance of slowing down and trusting the process. And they learned that patience, consideration, and gratification were well worth the struggles they encountered.

Please share your project-based learning ideas below!

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