CAMAS — The girls are hunched over potted plants inside Camas’ newest middle school, pulling out measuring tape and calling out numbers.
“What are you doing?” a visitor asks the sixth-graders.
“Measuring the diameter and circumference,” one of the girls answers before racing away toward another potted plant near the building’s main staircase.
“It’s for our math class,” another sixth-grader chimes in as the group gathers their measuring tape and pencils in pursuit of the next round object.
Upstairs, a language arts teacher is corralling another group of middle school students through a hallway, en route to an open-space classroom, where they’ll sit on “buoy chairs” that bounce and sway, or “node desks,” which have attached chairs as well as wheels to let them float around the wide open spaces.
Giant whiteboards are prominently displayed with students’ ideas scrawled across their edges in various shades of blue, green and pink erasable markers. On one side of the school, a set of wall-to-wall windows looks out over a treed landscape with Mount St. Helens in the distance.
To a child of the ‘80s, used to walled-off classrooms filled with desks that face one teacher and maybe a chalkboard, this school looks wildly different from most middle schools — more futuristic and, frankly, a lot more fun.
That’s a common reaction, says Aaron Smith, principal of the new Project Based Learning (PBL) Middle School, and something that was a combination of practicality and purposeful design.
The practicality comes from the space itself. In search of additional space for its growing student body, the Camas School District’s school board was considering putting portables at its two existing middle schools and building a new high school using money from a $120 million bond that voters passed in February of 2016. But when the Sharp Laboratories of America building, at 5780 N.W. Pacific Rim Blvd., on the western edge of the Camas district opened up, district officials saw an opportunity.
At the time of the Sharp building and land purchase, Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell wrote in an email to stakeholders that the property would “meet an important bond outcome: purchasing property for future schools” and would also provide “a building that can become a school at a fraction of the price of new construction.”
“They really over-delivered with the bond,” Smith says. “They purchased a 55,000-square-foot building and 30 acres for about $12 million.”
The existing Sharp building, with its made-for-tech-workers interior, was a good fit for the new PBL Middle School. In fact, the open spaces were perfect for the type of project-based environment teachers and administrators had in mind.
“When we visited other project-based programs in the region, that was something we saw: open spaces, flexible spaces, room for whiteboards,” Smith explains.
Students who hoped to attend the new middle school had added their ideas for the new building, including the bouncing buoy chairs — good for getting rid of extra energy and easy to move from one part of the building to another — and the mobile desk/chair combos. Smith and his group of four teachers took advantage of existing cabinets inside the Sharp building and put wooden doors on top of them, creating a combination of storage space and usable counter space for the school’s sixth and seventh grade students.
The school opened in September with 112 students, four teachers and Smith, who is the middle school principal as well as the planning principal for the district’s new Project Based Learning High School, which will be constructed next to the new middle school and is scheduled for a fall of 2018 opening. Next year, the middle school will add an eighth grade class and continue to grow its student population. Within five years, the school is expected to grow to 400 students, alleviating overcrowding at the Camas district’s two other middle schools, Liberty and Skyridge.
Despite its hectic beginning — Smith says the district closed on the property just a couple weeks before school started in September — the new program seems to be off to a promising start. Students, who had to apply for the program and see if their number was picked in the “lottery” system, start their school days at either Liberty or Skyridge middle schools, where they attend traditional elective classes. At 9:45 a.m., they take a bus to the new PBL school, where they spend the rest of the school day studying traditional subjects like language arts and math, but with an emphasis on group learning, communication skills and hands-on projects.
“We’re not trying to turn things upside down,” Smith says. “In fact, there are elements of project based learning happening at other schools in the district.”
Where the new middle school differs from the district’s other, more traditional programs, is in its emphasis on the collaborative learning, group projects and communication skills.
“We’re trying to give them the toolbelt of skills and techniques they’ll need to be able to collaborate and work with their peers,” Smith says. “These are skills that will help them in college, in their careers, way beyond middle school.”
The project based learning model was something that appealed to Lisa Wilderman, a seventh-grade teacher at the new PBL Middle School.
“Having worked in the business world previously and now in the classroom for 17 years, the idea of teaching students through projects while focusing on collaboration, communication and time and resource management appealed to me because I know how valuable these skills are in the real world,” Wilderman says.
The new teaching method is having a positive effect on the students, too, Smith says.
“They had their first public presentations last week and there were a few teams that struggled in the beginning, they struggled with working in groups,” Smith explains. “But, in the presentations, those teams were some of the most impressive … they understood what they had to do to work together, to work as a team.”
Wilderman agrees that the students seem to be catching on quickly in the new project based learning environment.
“The seventh-graders have made the transition really well,” she says. “They are often surprised when the day is over due to their excitement and engagement. I am really impressed with how far they have come with their collaboration skills and flexibility in the first seven weeks.”