The instructional staff at the Shuman Center, a juvenile facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had just completed a set of professional development sessions in the spring focusing on cross-curricular project-based learning (PBL), and they were thinking about ways to initiate such a program themselves.
Shuman houses a varying number of youths between the ages of 12 and 20 while they await adjudication. The average resident age is just under 15, and the average length of stay is approximately two weeks. These and other factors present challenges for a staff charged not only with maintaining a safe, secure facility for its residents, but also with providing opportunities and assistance for continuing their educations.
That was the situation when a timely email about something called ‘Project Summer’ reached staff inboxes. “We were familiar with Compass Learning®—we’d used some of their products before,” said Shuman’s Title I program manager Denise Smith-Russell. She and her colleagues learned that Compass Learning was launching a new Web-based inquiry and project-based learning solution called GoQuest™. The more they learned about GoQuest, the more interested they became. And when they perused the details of ‘Project Summer,’ they really sat up and took notice.
‘Project Summer’ was a Compass Learning contest offering a free summer-long trial of GoQuest in exchange for an agreement to create, manage, document, and present the results of a learning project focused on community. All entrants received summer access. The winner, chosen from among the completed projects, would receive teacher and student access to GoQuest for one full year.
“We read ‘PBL.’ We read ‘community.’ And honestly, we saw ‘free,’” said Title I reading teacher Beth Moody. “We were ready to implement something new, and our PBL training had been centered on community concerns. We figured, what could it hurt?”
“We were excited when time and opportunity met!” emphasized Smith-Russell. “We signed on and entered the contest with students and staff collaborating and challenging themselves to complete projects. Six of our students were able to complete projects, all of which focused upon transforming communities.”
Smith-Russell added, “One housing unit wrote, produced, and performed a play for the entire center. The primary playwright had exited the facility before the play was performed, but he was able to view the final product on video. He was amazed and very proud of the finished project!”
When asked how GoQuest facilitated their efforts, Moody pointed out the solution’s Web-based nature. “Our residents don’t carry book bags or things like that, so it’s important that everything can be created and stored on the Web. Also, our Internet is heavily filtered, which can be a challenge for doing research, but GoQuest provides so many vetted online resources (40,000 plus) that it ‘feels’ open.”
“When we were announced as the winners, administration, security staff and students were ecstatic! ” said Smith-Russell. We also received special congratulations from the consultants that trained our staff in PBL.
Since receiving licenses for GoQuest for one year and formally implementing the program this fall, the Shuman residents have come to really like it. “We use it for project-based and collaborative learning to enhance the standard Title I reading and math curriculum,” said Moody. “The older residents get to work independently. One young man, who had been resistant to some of our efforts previously, really embraced the creativity that GoQuest could offer. He produced a professional rap recording with a community theme based on his work in GoQuest.”
“Because of GoQuest, the students are now more independent learners in general,” said Smith-Russell. “ GoQuest and PBL have aided in the development of our students as they become valued stakeholders in their own educational process. We have noted that when residents leave us and then return following court-oriented or administrative activities, they ask to come back to GoQuest and pick up their projects where they left off.”
“Students who in the past had behavior problems have become process and project leaders in some of the GoQuest collaborative efforts,” Smith-Russell continued. “And it’s been a natural process. They’ve embraced this and owned it. GoQuest has been a key to promoting student agency.”