Archived — Finding Real-Life Problems for Students to Solve

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Teachers can find many effective real-life learning projects to do with their students just by responding to a need in their local community. With the Olympics coming to Vancouver for example, Marc Pelech's neighbouring community of Surrey had a natural desire to commemorate this world event in a public way. "There was no financial opportunity so we wouldn't be competing with existing businesses, but there was the potential for huge feedback from the community."

There was also a challenging set of problems to solve. Everything related to the Olympics is copyright—every symbol, every word—so Pelech and his media arts students had to think of a way to prepare a work of art that would look "Olympic" but without any of the elements that typically go with an Olympic theme.

Sometimes simple curiosity can be the motive for a successful real-life history project. For example, a farmer in Portage la Prairie found a rusted old gun in his field. The gun was obviously very old but nothing else about it or about how it came to be in that location was obvious. James Kostuchuk asked his history students to figure out what it was, how long it had been there and how it might have come to be there. "I brought it to class—it was fused together so it was no longer a gun in any practical sense—and had the students take notes."

There were some markings on it, including some numbers on the barrel that turned out to be a serial number. Using this information, some of the students figured out who made the gun and when. As it happened, the period the gun was manufactured coincided with the Riel Rebellion. "That led to some interesting speculation, since both Thomas Scott and Major Charles Boulton, who played significant roles in the events, had been through Portage la Prairie at the time," says Kostuchuk.

Michael Ernest Sweet has his students do all their term work under the umbrella of a single publishing project. Instead of handing in five separate assignments, everything they do is geared towards producing a portfolio for a book. "The students do all the work they would normally do in English language arts but they also get a course in writing, editing and marketing a book in the process." (See, "Publishing From the Classroom.")