Authentic Project Ideas – The Starting Point

NASA Photo of Ingenuity Flying Over the Surface of Mars!!

Early this morning, NASA flew a helicopter on Mars! I think that NASA has had so many successes recently that it is easy to forget how difficult this is, and what a huge historic accomplishment this represents. For the first time, humans have flown an aircraft on another planet!

To be honest, to me this is such a huge event that I can’t even begin to think about an authentic project, or an authentic driving question for a project. I think just talking to students, and gaining an understanding of their questions about this event, should lead to an authentic starting point. And honestly, isn’t that how all authentic projects should start?

Congratulations to NASA on the first flight of Ingenuity!

Authentic Project Ideas – Animals in the Wild

A picture is worth a thousand words.  I am also hoping this picture is worth a blue ribbon at our summer county fair. And I plan to use it on a set of future handcrafted holiday cards!

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my husband and I ran into dozens of wild elk on a drive through Elk County, Pennsylvania (that’s a well named county).  I knew nothing about elk, but after seeing these gorgeous animals I did quite a bit of research.  They are actually members of the deer family.

I can think of many driving questions and projects involving elk.  The question that got me doing research was why were we seeing so many elk out in the early spring?  We had done this same drive during the summer and did not see one elk.  Now we were seeing them everywhere, including in many front yards of homes. Can you imagine walking out your front door and finding 25 elk standing there?

I wish everyone could see these majestic animals in person in the wild, but for many this would need to be a virtual experience.  This is not the same as an in person, wild encounter.  Even a zoo is not the same.  So, if a virtual experience is not authentic enough to engage your learners, with a little research you should be able to find other animals that are indigenous to your local habitat.  Good luck, and I would love to see photos of what engages your learners.

Authentic Project Ideas – Global Warming

If you look closely at this photo you will see that the middle house is jacked up on stilts.  This house sits across the street from the Atlantic Ocean.  Why is this house up on stilts?  What are the owners doing?  Why would they be doing this?  These homes have been here for a long time.  What has changed?

These questions could lead to possible projects about the rising ocean and global warming.  But if they lead to a project about home restoration, or the tourist industry (these are homes that are vacation rentals) and the impact of COVID-19…that is authentic learning!

Authentic Project Ideas – Domestic vs Wild

I had never seen a wild turkey before.  It was so cool to see this flock (are they called a flock) of turkeys on a drive north of where we live.

Looking through my blog photos, I found a picture I had taken of domestic turkeys and was very surprised at the difference.  One big difference, literally, was that the domestic turkeys were bigger, as in more meat.  In the photos I had, the wild and domestic birds looked to be different colors also.

So, a driving question for an authentic project might be about the differences between wild and domestic turkeys.  Or wild and domestic “any animal.”  A question/prompt could be about the history of domestication of an animal. This could easily turn into an authentic project about the history of the domestication of dogs and/or cats.

Learners might also be surprised as to how many animals are considered domestic and what the definition of domestic is.  I learned this lesson when I entered a gorgeous “blue-ribbon” photo of alpacas into the wild animal category of our county fair and found out after I entered the photo that alpacas are considered domestic animals.  I had thought only dogs and cats were considered domestic.

If a project is truly authentic, you start with a photo of wild turkeys and end up with a project about domestication and a future award-winning photo of alpacas. (I let you know how the alpaca photo does in the domestic category next summer!)

Authentic Project Ideas – Groundhog’s Day

On another voyage through our home state of Pennsylvania, we happened upon a groundhog named Phil.  As in Punxsutawney Phil! 

So how did Groundhog’s Day begin?  What is the history of this day?  Do other countries have a Groundhog’s Day or a similar type day?  Why is the legend that if he sees his shadow on February 2nd, there will be six more weeks of winter?  If he sees his shadow, that means the sun is out, so shouldn’t there be an early spring? 

The project could easily turn into an authentic project about what effect Groundhog’s Day has had on the economy of Punxsutawney.  Driving around the small town you could see that the impact has been significant.  The tour guide up in Gobbler’s Knob, where the official day is held, told us that everything changed after the movie Groundhog’s Day, which ironically was not filmed in Punxsutawney. What other cities have dramatically increased tourism due to a movie? Lots of authentic driving questions could come from the photos above and below.

Punxsutawney Phil lives in a glass enclosed burrow at the Punxsutawney Library.  There were actually two groundhogs in the burrow and they looked very snuggly on a cold March day.  When it was explained to us that 40,000 people show up at Gobbler’s Knob at 2am on February 2nd to wait until that morning to see Phil, we thought that sounded like fun – NOT! We will stick to seeing him at the library.

Punxsutawney Phil

Authentic Project Ideas – Ice Formation

This ice was on the side of a rocky cliff.  It was absolutely gorgeous!

There was no visible source of water.  How does this kind of ice form?  Is there a name for this kind of ice? Are there different kinds of ice?

Create a poster to show how this ice formed.  Make a photo-journal.  Draw diagrams.  Create a booklet.

Write a fictional story inspired by this photograph. (I wrote this blog two days ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, so my story will be about the leprechauns that live behind this ice in a secret cave guarding their pot of gold!)

Authentic Scrapbooking

I am in the process of “scrapbooking” the 67 counties of the State of Pennsylvania.  I started this project when COVID-19 hit our shores.  It seemed a safe way to get out and explore, learning more about our state in day trips, or spending the night in hotels and beds and breakfasts that were following safety guidelines. It kept us in Pennsylvania and close to home.  It also was a way for us to, in a small way, help local businesses that were struggling to survive the pandemic.

 We are fortunate that we live in the center of a rectangular state – literally in Centre County – and can pretty much get anywhere in the state in a few hours.

This has been an amazing experience in authentic learning.  I am understanding so much more about the geography of our state.  We have lived here for five years, but really had a limited understanding of what was around us.  This has also forced us to dig deep in some counties to find something interesting to do, but if you dig, you will find that authentic experience!

You also need to listen to those you meet.  Really listen – like listening to your students regarding what interests them.

In one bed and breakfast, the owner had a collection of wonderful gourds on display.  She told us about a gourd factory in a neighboring county and that became our destination for that county. 

On a recent trip, only one hour north of where we live, the waitress in a restaurant showed us pictures of elk in her front yard.  She told us which road to drive home on, and we thought what the heck, although we were skeptical and figured she was just lucky to capture that photo. We were stunned and blown away by the number of wild elk we encountered on the drive she suggested, and yes the elk were in people’s yards!

Scrapbooking has been a great way for me to present this project.  There are other ways I could have done this, but I love scrapbooking, so this worked for me.  I actually didn’t formally have to do anything as a product, as I am a tad old for school assignments, but this was a lot more fun than checking off a list, and I think being authentic has become so internalized I can’t turn it off anymore!  Authentic experiences are engaging and you learn! I have learned so much about Pennsylvania and we have only visited 23 of the 67 counties in our state.

I honestly knew nothing about elk, and can’t say that I cared, but have now spent hours researching and learning about his amazing and majestic animal. We are actually planning another trip up north soon to see more elk, postponing a planned shopping trip in another county that is now reopening. Me postponing a shopping trip, truly amazing! The world has finally stopped spinning!

Authentic Project Ideas – Creative Writing

I have a tendency to look at photos and think about projects that teach math, science, social studies… It is very easy for me to tie in writing to all of these projects. Even with very young children, a written description should accompany the final product.

But when I look at my photographs, I feel something. I don’t take photographs unless the subject matter somehow “reaches” me. I don’t take photos just to take photos. And in my head I am usually thinking of a story, a song, or a poem. Sometimes I forget to include these ideas on my blog.

The above photo could certainly be a prompt for an authentic project about snow, deciduous trees, ice formation, or rock formation. However, I took this picture to use it on my holiday cards next year. (Yes, I am already preparing for the 2021 Holiday Season.) Looking at this photo could inspire a driving question for writing poetry, or writing a fictional essay, composing a song…or as a featured photo on a holiday card!

Authentic Project Ideas – Beaches

Photo by T.B.♥️

Why do some shores have rocks while others have sandy beaches?  This authentic driving question can go in so many ways and result in so many authentic projects and products…

With younger learners this may lead to an authentic project about beaches.  What is a beach?  What are the different types of beaches?  Do rivers have beaches…lakes…oceans…cold water…warm water?

With older learners this may lead to an authentic project about waves and tides.  What causes them?  What is global warming doing to coastlines/beaches?

And as I look at all the snow in my backyard, I am trying to convince myself it is a white sand beach…

Authentic Projects Need Authentic Products

Photo by T.B.♥️

How does a river like this become a “Grand Canyon?” 

Authentic projects need authentic products:  Create a booklet with illustrations and/or photographs.  Create a chart.  Create a graph to show the timeline.  Build several models showing the progression.  Write a fictional legend…

Deciding the best way to present your research is as important as the research itself. It is also a great time to experiment with different ways to reach your audience.

And according to some former students of mine, I was old enough that I saw the beginnings of the Grand Canyon form – hmmmm – definitely a need for authentic time lines!