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School Shouldn’t Suck: Bennett Day School Teachers Share Project-Based Learning Strategies at BOOST Conference

What if school didn’t have to suck? That’s the question posed by Dr. Shannon Hurst, Upper School Science Teacher, and Alex Modica, Upper School Humanities Teacher, during their presentation at the 2024 BOOST Conference. The approach to project-based learning (PBL) at Bennett Day School is not only making school engaging, but it’s also fostering deeper learning, collaboration, and real-world impact.

Project-Based Learning: The Antidote to Disengagement

Even before the pandemic, schools and educators struggled with student engagement. For example, Gallup’s research on student engagement indicates a significant need for more active and engaging educational approaches like PBL. A 2019 poll from the firm found that only about one-third of students reported feeling engaged in school. 

Hurst and Modica encourage educators to address the common complaints students have about traditional education: “This doesn’t matter,” “I’m bored,” and “I’m just a number.” They argued that PBL is the antidote to these issues. By centering learning around challenging questions and authentic projects, PBL ignites student curiosity and empowers them to take ownership of their education.

The Bennett Weather Project: A PBL Success Story

The teachers highlighted a recent PBL project at Bennett Day School, where students built a functioning weather station and created a weather-themed mural. This project, a collaboration between science and humanities classes, exemplified the key principles of PBL:

  • Sustained Inquiry: Students spent 12 weeks immersed in the project, conducting research, visiting labs, and interviewing experts.
  • Authenticity: Students worked with real-world tools and data, and the school now uses their weather station and contributes to scientific research.
  • Student Voice & Choice: Students had agency over their learning, choosing research topics and project formats that aligned with their interests.
  • Reflection & Critique: Students regularly reflected on their progress, received feedback, and iterated on their work.
  • Public Product: Students had the opportunity to present their work to the community at Demo Night, an essential part of the PBL process that allows students to ‘show what they know‘ in a high-stakes environment.
video thumbnail of Bennett Day School on CBS2 Chicago

CBS2 Chicago’s Robb Ellis showcases the Bennett Day School Weather Station on the “What Caught My Eye” segment of the news.

Student Voices: The Impact of PBL

The success of Bennett’s PBL approach is evident in the reflections of their students. In a video shared during the presentation, students expressed enthusiasm for the project, highlighting how it fostered collaboration, creativity, and a deeper understanding of weather’s impact on their lives.

The Argonne visit meant a lot to me. It was my first time going to an actual research facility, and it was my first time actually talking and meeting scientists. For someone who does want to go into like a STEM field, being able to talk to actual scientists motivates me, and I can see myself, kind of, even though it's not the exact same field, I can see myself in them, and I can feel, you know, their excitement when they're talking about the projects, and it makes me want to be where they are in the future. So, you know, it was also a really interesting trip, but it also helped me kind of further my interest in science.


Class of 2027

It is amazing. We are the first school in downtown Chicago to actually put up a weather station that vividly and accurately reads the weather out here. It's actually really awesome. We made it to the news. We visited multiple national places just to make sure that the experience that we get from that weather station is the same as most national weather stations that they have. It's awesome. We calibrated and programmed and built it ourselves.


Class of 2026

Beyond the Project: Benefits of Interdisciplinary Curriculum

Hurst and Modica emphasized that PBL’s benefits extend far beyond the completion of a single project. By integrating multiple disciplines, PBL fosters:

  • Holistic Understanding: Students see connections between subjects, gaining a more comprehensive view of the world.
  • Enhanced Critical Thinking: Students tackle complex problems, analyze information from various sources, and evaluate multiple solutions.
  • Real-World Relevance: Projects connect to real-world issues, making learning more meaningful and applicable.
  • Collaborative Skills Development: Students learn to work effectively in teams, honing communication, compromise, and leadership skills.
  • Cultivating Empathy and Global Awareness: Projects often address social issues, fostering empathy and understanding of diverse perspectives.

Key Takeaways for Educators

Some practical advice for educators interested in implementing PBL:

  • Start with a Compelling Question: A thought-provoking question will drive student inquiry and engagement.
  • Consider Student Needs: Design projects that cater to diverse interests and learning styles.
  • Collaborate with Colleagues: Interdisciplinary collaboration can enrich the PBL experience.
  • Embrace the Messiness: PBL is not always a linear process; be prepared for unexpected challenges and celebrate the learning that emerges from them.
Dr. Hurst and Alex Modica

The Bennett Day School presentation at the BOOST Conference served as a powerful reminder that school doesn’t have to suck. By embracing project-based learning, educators can transform classrooms into vibrant spaces where students are actively engaged, collaborating, and making a real difference in their communities. As the evidence shows, PBL not only makes school more enjoyable but also leads to better academic outcomes, making it a win-win for both students and teachers.