What does project-based learning look like? At Northridge High School in Middlebury, Ind., any number of things – a tic-tac-toe board, a Lazy Susan, a sign, a growth chart, or even a coaster.

Basically, it looks like anything creative young people design when they use what they’ve learned in a real-world application.

The young people in question are the nearly 60 students in Northridge’s Introduction to Engineering Design class. Their task was to design a useful product that could be manufactured – and potentially marketed – by Robert Weed Corp. Headquartered in Bristol, Ind., Robert Weed Corp. is a manufacturer and distributor of wood and composite products for a variety of industries, including recreational vehicles.

Collaboration is key

Northridge and Robert Weed working together is a prime example of project-based learning. It’s also key to the mission of the group that fostered the partnership. Part of what Horizon Education Alliance (HEA) does is support networks of businesses, schools, and community members in developing initiatives to boost education success in Elkhart County.

HEA - Project-based learning

Students in Northridge High School’s Introduction to Engineering Design class listen as Cindy Grider, left, director of human resources at Robert Weed Corp., discusses project-based learning. The Northridge students recently partnered with Robert Weed Corp. to design products the Bristol-based company could manufacture. From left, the pictured students are Dustin Hochstetler, Isai De La Rosa, and Wyatt Simmons.
Photo by Jason Bryant

“Our purpose for this initiative is to introduce industry-infused PBL (project-based learning with a business or community partner) as an effective approach to teaching that increases student engagement and learning as well as creates valuable real-world connections for students and teachers,” explained Kathleen Jones, HEA’s Project-Based Learning coordinator. “This program was launched five years ago as the Business-Education Roundtables, a series of conversations between educators and community business leaders to discuss the importance of cross-sector collaboration and project-based learning that incorporates real-world community partners.”

The program continued to develop, and during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, HEA offered a more comprehensive approach that supported teachers in partnering with businesses, developing PBL unit plans, and then implementing those units. These Industry-Infused PBL partnerships are supported by the sustained conversation through the Business-Education Roundtables.

As the program has moved forward, participation has grown. In 2017-18, roughly 25 teachers across all seven Elkhart County school districts took part in the program. In 2018-19, 40 teachers from all seven districts and 25 business/community partners participated.

Understanding the process

Bridget Griffin, a Project Lead the Way engineering teacher at Northridge, oversaw the students’ work. She explained that the project involved reverse engineering a Robert Weed countertop made of material-density fiberboard.

“The kids’ project was basically to understand everything they could about the product, and the process of manufacturing it,” Griffin said. “They had to be able to measure it and create it in Inventor, which is 3D modeling software. They had to understand the materials. We visited the plant so they could see what the process was. Once they had all of that done, their next step in their groups was to brainstorm new product applications.”

Griffin said the students were tasked with coming up with around 30 different ideas. Additionally, they had to understand the material and equipment constraints based on Robert Weed’s production set-up.

“The students also had to feel it was a product people would actually buy,” she noted.

Griffin said that once the options were narrowed down based on the project constraints, the remaining ideas were put into what’s termed a decision matrix.

“That’s a decision used in engineering to determine the criteria that’s important, and the remaining ideas were ranked based on that,” she said. “Instead of just voting on what they liked the best, they had to determine which idea really was the best. Then they had to model it and come up with a proposal to present to Robert Weed explaining why they thought the project was a good idea.

“In this class, we do a lot of projects and the kids work in teams a lot,” Griffin continued. “This was the first time in this class that we worked with a business partner. That makes it a lot more authentic for the kids.”

“Schools now have to do project-based learning,” said Cindy Grider, Robert Weed’s director of human resources. “Partnering with industries helps them learn skills that are a little more useful in the workplace when they get out of school.”

For Robert Weed Corp., an authentic learning experience for the students could also be good for the bottom line.

“Robert Weed was looking for product ideas to diversify their manufacturing so they could avoid the up and down roller-coaster of the RV industry, basically,” Griffin said. “They were also looking for products they could make without changing their manufacturing.”

With their projects finalized, the students faced a final challenge: convincing Robert Weed Corp. that their work was worth building.

Making the cut

“We came to their classroom and they presented all of their projects to us, a bit ‘Shark Tank’ style,” Grider said. “We were really impressed with what they were able to put together, and their thought process and ability to present them to us.”

HEA - Project-based learning

Marcos Reyes and Dan Pires, students in Northridge High School’s Introduction to Engineering Design class, describe the Lazy Susan they designed as part of a project-based learning exercise. Students in the class recently partnered with Robert Weed Corp. in designing products the Bristol-based company could manufacture.
Photo by Jason Bryant

Actually selecting the winning projects was a bit of a balancing act.

“We picked projects that were intriguing as well as ones we could produce in a relatively short period of time,” Grider said.

Robert Weed’s director of manufacturing services, Matt Ewing, then decided it would be great if students could actually see manufactured versions of their concepts.

“From the students’ prints, we developed the products in our production line to give back to them,” Grider said.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Robert Weed representatives returned to the high school to do just that. In other words, Dan Pires and Marcos Reyes got to actually see their Lazy Susan. Eduardo Garcia, Dane Woodwarth, and Corey Hainlin now know what their Growth Chart looks like. (“It’s just a big ruler to measure your kid,” one of them said of the concept. “A lot of people don’t like writing on the wall or door frame to measure their kids.” Plus, families can take the ruler with them if they move.) The list goes on.

Dustin Hochstetler was happy to see the finished prototype of signage he designed with Wyatt Simmons and Isai De La Rosa.

“It looks great,” Hochstetler told the Robert Weed representatives. “I like the finish on it. It looks very professional. It looks like you guys knew what you were doing, basically.”

For the Northridge students, the engineering project was a chance to watch concepts become reality. It was also the opportunity for learning practical skills hands-on.

“It helped with learning and applying things in a real-world application considering we were applying the skills in a real-world application in our projects,” said student Ben Seiltz. “That would be something you could actually work on at the job, which is nice.”

“It’s what many of the people up here actually do,” Grider replied.