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Building Youth Leadership Capacity Through Project-Based Learning

Building Youth Leadership Capacity Through Project-Based Learning

By: Melissa Miller, Associate Director of the Iowa Water Center

From Getting into Soil and Water 2018

“ The world needs people who can lead others to make a change for the better if anything is gonna change for the better.”

This is a reflection from a Davenport North High School junior, one of the first students to experience environmental science education through a pilot program called “The Watershed Project,” sponsored by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and administered by the Iowa Water Center (IWC).

From 2014-2016, three faculty members at Ames High School conducted the Bluestem Institute, a “school within a school” that used project-based learning (PBL) methods to engage youth in threedimensional learning while meeting Next Generation Science Standards. Staff from IWC and the Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership (ISWEP) interacted with the 2015-2016 Bluestem Institute cohort while they were studying the complex nature of watersheds. This experience inspired the creation of The Watershed Project. The Watershed Project is a flexible framework that replicates the learning experience of the Bluestem Institute for implementation in any high school in Iowa. The objective is to address the intersection of science, government, sociology, economics and art as they relate to decision making regarding water and land use at local levels.

The project, which began in December of 2016, has three phases: first, the Ames High faculty who created the Bluestem Institute developed resources and schematics to capture the methodology of a Gold Standard project-based learning classroom, which will be available free of charge via the project website, In phase two, a Davenport North High school teacher, Laura McCreery, is adopting the framework for her environmental science course, a nine-week dual-enrollment course that earns students four college credits toward an associate’s degree. In phase three, Angela Mesenbrink will do the same for her students at Storm Lake High School. Throughout the pilot, the framework and other resource materials are continuously critiqued and revised. As more schools embark on the project, the website will host a portfolio of activities, products and lessons learned.


Ames High faculty Mike Todd, Joe Brekke and Chad Zmolek intend for The Watershed Project framework to be flexible, as all schools, teachers, students and watersheds are unique. However, there are Getting into Soil & Water 2018 A publication of the Soil & Water Conservation Club 21 some key components in this “choose your own adventure” style that all adopting schools will follow. Each teacher starts with $5,000 of seed money for professional development, travel and supplies. Intensive planning, learning the principles of project-based learning and building community partnerships are imperative to project success.


Planning for implementation begins up to a year before conducting the course: the teacher and school agree to participate (following the pilot project, there will be a competitive application) and the teacher registers for PBL World, an immersive seminar held in Napa Valley, California each June. Just before attending the workshop, the teacher meets with in-state mentors – teachers who have previously flipped their classroom to project-based learning – and brainstorms how The Watershed Project might work in their community.

Learning About Project-Based Learning

At PBL World, the teacher learns Gold Standard Project-Based Learning principles while generating project ideas and refining them through peer critique, as well as establishing assessment tools for the projects and gaining skills for managing a project-based learning classroom. After attending PBL World in June of 2017, Davenport North’s McCreery reflected, “Too often I want students to learn the material first and then apply the material to a project. The conference showed me that the longevity of the material is greater when the students have to learn the material through a meaningful project.” McCreery also discovered, and later corroborated, that a good “launch” (introductory activity) to a project cycle is instrumental.

Community Partnerships

Prior to attending PBL World, McCreery engaged Davenport Public Works communications and preparedness manager Robbin Dunn, who secured funds from her employer to travel with McCreery to Napa to develop their plan together. Collaborating early with someone in the community gave McCreery critical support right from the start. Dunn connected McCreery’s first cohort of students to experts in the community as they developed small group-led watershed improvement projects. The students culminated the course by pitching their proposals to a team of Public Works employees, who determined which students would receive funding to implement their project

Interacting with the community is key to the authenticity of project-based learning. One student commented that the most enjoyable part of the project was “seeing how many people in the community were willing to help.” Another mentioned “listening to adults react to our knowledge about this project” as the most rewarding. Not all students chose to implement their project after the course ended, but several did. Of those that did, the community came through once again. To date, the class has accumulated over $10,000 of in-kind donations from local businesses.

Lessons Learned

Because McCreery’s class was dual-credit, she had to adapt The Watershed Project framework to fit learning objectives of both the high school and the local community college. She also had to race through the project-based learning cycle at an intense pace: the Bluestem Institute seminar lasted an entire academic year, McCreery’s, just nine weeks. Overall, it was worth it. McCreery reported that she is experimenting with flipping some of her other science courses to project-based learning, in addition to the two other cohorts that will come through environmental science this year.

The reflections from the first cohort of students were also promising. Post-project surveys indicated the entire class positively associated the experience with making them aware of their individual impact on water quality, and nearly all intended to apply lessons learned to reduce their personal impact on the watershed. Many students felt they made an impact on educating a large number of people in the watershed, and most also felt the project influenced how they understood the complexities and life skills involved in planning and executing an idea. Several of the students even indicated they were considering a career in soil and water conservation. When asked the most important thing they learned in the project, one student responded, “how easy and helpful it is for a student to be involved in the community,” while another stated “how the watershed is affected – I never knew what a watershed was.”

The next steps for the project are to repeat the nine-week cycle in McCreery’s classes in the spring while compiling and organizing resources for the Storm Lake implementation. Additionally, IWC and ISWEP staff are working on a plan to scale up and sustain the seed funding for schools that want to implement The Watershed Project. As with the projects the students themselves are implementing, community partnerships are welcome in this endeavor.

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