, Newburyport, MA

December 4, 2013

Taking a lesson beyond the books

Fourth-graders gain business skills through project-based learning

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall

---- — ROWLEY – There’s much more than reading, writing and arithmetic going on in Bill Maguire’s fourth grade class at the Pine Grove Elementary School these days. There’s business planning and organizing, manufacturing and marketing date setting, and capital-seeking presenting to potential investors.

The 19 nine-and 10-year-olds in Maguire’s class have embarked on a multidisciplinary learning experience unlike any other. Through the ambitious endeavors of Maguire in seeking a challenging Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit that went all the way to the superintendent’s office for approval, the students have spent the last months building a new enterprise called Saplings, a tree-based school supplies company.

From working up mock designs of products to projecting costs to making presentations to get “investments” from local groups, like the PTA and their own families, the students are learning what it’s like to build a business from the ground up.

The unique project, which uses materials from the Buck Institute for Education, is designed to incorporate mathematics, technology, engineering and writing, and address numerous core curriculum framework standards. Piloting this small business model has seen the students taking on roles as chief operating officer, chief financial officer, vice president of marketing, manufacturing and the like, and leading the project from start to finish as the drivers of the business plan.

“The biggest benefit of a project like this is authentic learning,” Maguire said. “With the authentic learning opportunities found in PBL, students become more invested and motivated. I can crank up the challenges without fear of losing the student because they care about the outcome.”

Using the PBL template, a business plan for tree-based products was developed and the product line-up began with sturdy wooden pencil sharpeners and “Bookdogs” that act as book stands. The product line quickly expanded to learning products in an effort to attract teachers as customers, as well as students. Some of those products include Sproutlets, which helps children understand relational concepts, or the wooden-wedge pizza tool that teaches fractions to students.

The students have had help along the way from Maguire of course, who, in addition to directing the group throughout the project, has constructed a rolling kiosk to display the items for sale. Scott Ewell, grandfather to student Nate Ewell, assisted by building the prototype products, and Dylan Marshall’s father, Tim, provided a quote for all the materials so the students could determine which ones fit into their budget, and then constructed the components of the products for the kids to assemble.

The students are busy now putting together the products for their debut sale at the annual winter concert this Thursday at Triton Regional High School at 7 p.m., and then again at the Pine Grove annual craft fair on Saturday, Dec. 7 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the elementary school.

“Many times, students finish a PBL unit surprised at their own accomplishments,” Maguire said. He added that, through looping, this is the second year he has had the same students as he moved from teaching third grade to fourth grade. That has allowed him a year to introduce the process and expectations of PBL to the students so that they could take on a “massive” unit like this in the second year.

“These students will walk away with an understanding of how their basic skills can help them in the real world, and therefore experience a renewed focus on mastering those basic skills,” he said.