VISTA — At 12 years old, Sullivan Brown is passionate about gardening. He’s grown corn, watermelon, tomatoes, and most recently, cilantro.
The Roosevelt Middle School student had the opportunity to further explore his passion in the classroom thanks to a technology-based project that spanned across three states.
Sullivan is one of more than 600 students to participate in COW, a collaborative project formed among three schools in California, Ohio and Wisconsin. In the project, teachers asked the questions, “How do people affect the land?” and “How does the land affect people?” Students then answered it in their own way, while sharing resources with their peers.
“I love gardening so I did an experiment on how fertilizer affects cilantro,” Sullivan said. “I really enjoyed choosing my own thing to do. I liked the creativity of it.”
To document his findings, Sullivan took a photo of his growing cilantro every 30 minutes over the course of a few weeks. His photos were merged into a time-lapse video.
About 250 seventh grade students at Roosevelt Middle answered the questions by exploring topics like earthquakes, glaciers and over-industrialization. They documented their findings in presentations like stop-motion videos, video games or infographics.
“When you allow students to think outside the box, it’s remarkable the things they come up with,” Elise Ochenduszko, principal of Roosevelt Middle School, said. “They exceeded all of our expectations.”
Ochenduszko said the project was formed after Devin Vodicka, superintendent for Vista Unified, met the superintendents for Mentor Public Schools from Ohio and Kettle Moraine School District from Wisconsin during a conference.
“They thought it would be neat to do a collaboration between the three school districts,” Ochenduszko said. “The goal of the project was to really engage the students in what we call competency-based learning rather than giving them information. It was an intriguing opportunity to collaborate with other states.”
Jessica Janes, science teacher at Roosevelt Middle, said students were able to take ownership of their own work.
“Students took more initiative in their self-directed learning than typically seen,” Janes said. “They had to take charge in teaching themselves certain skills and troubleshooting their various problems, rather than relying on someone else to provide all the answers. I have never seen middle school students take as much pride in their learning and creations as they did with this project.”
Karis Brown, 12, said the project allowed her to be more engaged in school. Her project focused on how hunting affects the earth.
“I feel like I learned more in the COW classes,” Karis said. “Sometimes class could get boring but if it’s something you enjoy, you’ll remember what you learned years from now.”
Brian Platte, who documented how over-industrialization affects the earth through a video game, said the project forced him to dig deeper into his topic.
“I kept finding more information because I was responsible for my own learning,” said 12-year-old Brian. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I thought the project was really successful.”
Ochenduszko said the project caught the eye of online retail giant, Amazon, which is working to develop a digital, nationwide resource for teachers. The company asked the teachers involved in COW to share their lessons plans on its website.
“Nationwide competency-based learning is really the wave of the future,” Ochenduszko said. “The resources from COW will be a model for that.”
Ochenduszko said teachers will meet in January to discuss plans to expand the project to other schools.
“We’re taking what we learned to make a meaningful connection with more students,” Ochenduszko said. “This is a really powerful opportunity for students, and great professional development for teachers.”