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Digging in: Solon Springs students try project-based learning

The effort gave students a taste of what project-based learning is like ahead of the school district's new charter school opening in the fall.

Isaiah Kastern, center, shovels snow from the shelter he built with partners Cash Kastern, left, and Kaden Corlett
Isaiah Kastern, center, shovels snow from the shelter he built with partners Cash Kastern, left, and Kaden Corlett for Project Based Learning week outside of Solon Springs School Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Solon Springs, Wis.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SOLON SPRINGS — Students immersed themselves in project-based learning last week in Solon Springs. Their mission was to answer the question: “How can I best survive a Solon winter?”

Seventh grader Rozlynn Bunt was more than immersed; she was cocooned. Bunt laid on the floor of a classroom Friday, Jan. 28, wrapped in a sleeping bag lined with survival blankets. The prototype survival gear, which Bunt and her team called the “Burrito 2.1,” was crafted to reflect body heat back into the sleeping bag.

Seventh-grader Rozlynn Bunt is wrapped up in the Burrito 2.1
Seventh-grader Rozlynn Bunt is wrapped up in the Burrito 2.1 that her group made for Project-Based Learning week at Solon Springs School Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Solon Springs, Wis.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

It worked. During one test of “Burrito 2.1,” Bunt and her teammates — eighth graders Lilian Garland, Serena Smith and Vaelina Smith — recorded a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit inside the bag and -18 degrees outside it.

In the technical education classroom, sixth graders Claire Beerntsen, Mazzy Johnson and Ezra Ahlberg pieced together a portable fire kit. The wooden box had removable compartments for storing fire-starting materials such as cotton balls, flint, steel, a battery and steel wool. Keeping the battery and steel wool separate was key, the students said, as they quickly combust when brought together.

A doll-sized tent sat on a table in another classroom. Seventh grader Jade Gobin said they originally planned to make their “Papa Heat” tent out of 100% cotton.

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“Because it lets water vapor go through it, pass through it, but it doesn’t let liquid water pass through it and it contains heat very well and it protects from the wind,” Gobin said. “And that’s using convection. If you had a heater in there, which, if we were to sell this as a product, it would come with a solar-powered heater.”

Instead she and her team — eighth grader Annina Guttormson and seventh graders Hollie Anderson and Madison Jacobs — used the material they had on hand for the prototype.

The district received an $800,000 grant to launch a project-based charter school for student in middle and high school.

“And we used, like, two layers because we thought that would be better than just using one,” Jacobs said.

It worked. After sitting overnight in the classroom, Guttormson said, the temperature inside the tent was 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 66 degrees outside it.

The week of exploration was a sneak peek into the future. The Solon Springs School District will launch Eagles Academy, a project-based learning charter school for students in middle and high school, in the fall.

Sixth-graders Claire Beerntsen, left, Ezra Ahlberg, center, and Mazzy Johnson explain their portable fire kit
Sixth-graders Claire Beerntsen, left, Ezra Ahlberg, center, and Mazzy Johnson explain their portable fire kit as they put on the lid during Project Based Learning week at Solon Springs school Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Project-based learning is a method where students are actively engaged in interdisciplinary projects that demonstrate the learning process.

“Students are learning the same standards as traditional schools do, but they do them in different methods and they do them in different order,” said Brittany Hager, charter grant coordinator for Eagle’s Academy.

During the week, the students read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” learned about thermodynamics while trying to keep an ice cube from melting, and researched evidence to support their survival techniques. Local business Snowtrekker Tents set up a demo tent for them to study. Teachers from other Wisconsin charter schools lent a hand.

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Project-based learning centers student voices and flattens the hierarchy in the classroom, said Skylar Primm, who teaches at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Marquette County.

“I really like the opportunity to sit with them, learn with them and watch them incorporate their own ideas and drive their own learning,” he said.

Paul Richards, who teaches at Anthony Acres in the Mondovi School District, said he appreciates the student voice and choice offered through project-based learning.

“I love students being able to learn all the stuff that they would learn in a traditional school, but within their passions, and they get excited about that,” Anthony said.

Seventh-graders Jade Gobin, from left, Madison Jacobs and Hollie Anderson, talk about the tent they created as eighth-grader Annika Guttormson checks the temperature inside the tent
Seventh-graders Jade Gobin, from left, Madison Jacobs and Hollie Anderson, talk about the tent they created as eighth-grader Annika Guttormson checks the temperature inside the tent during Project Based Learning week at Solon Springs school Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

It’s not the right fit for every student, Primm said, but the Solon Springs students all jumped in and appeared to enjoy the learning experience.

“It’s definitely a little weird because you don’t really have a set schedule, but I mean, it’s all right. It’s just different. I wouldn’t say it’s any better or worse, just different,” said sophomore Isaiah Kastern, who built a snow cave with his team.

Junior Isabel Molina and her team designed a metal cot with a firebox beside it that would trickle hot coals underneath the cot, which would be lined with a heat resistant blanket.

“I think it was a cool idea. I’m not sure how well it would work. I think it was a really interesting concept and they gave us a very broad type of question and we had a lot of creativity and freedom to make whatever we thought was the best,” Molina said.

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With only one year left of high school, Molina said she can’t see herself making a switch to project-based learning.

“I thought for me it wouldn’t be something that I would want to do just because I’m a junior now, but I think that it’s a really great opportunity for a lot of kids and I’m excited to see where it’s going to take place in our school,” Molina said.

Isaiah Kastern shovels snow from his shelter
Isaiah Kastern shovels snow from his shelter during Project Based Learning week outside of Solon Springs school Friday morning, Jan. 28, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Offering a range of educational opportunities for parents and children is something the Solon Springs School District has made a commitment to, said Principal Holly Jones.

Launched in fall 2019, the district’s Montessori charter school for students in preschool through grade six has outpaced its legacy classrooms in enrollment. The project-based learning academy offers a similar choice for older students.

“We’re not looking to replace, we’re looking to add to our district and expand opportunities,” Hager said.

Sixth-grader Claire Beerntsen cuts a piece of wood
Sixth-grader Claire Beerntsen cuts a piece of wood for the portable fire kit that her group created at Solon Springs School on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Solon Springs, Wis.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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