Middle School Students Tackle Big Problems

The next generation of innovators and great thinkers get fired up at Cape Fear Academy. One way the school does this is by inspiring students to identify issues that are important to them and to develop solutions.

Middle School Project Week is a week of hands-on learning where teams of sixth, seventh and eighth graders choose a problem or issue to tackle and develop a thoroughly researched project that they present to the school and community at the end of the week.

“The week is an opportunity to intentionally develop good teamwork skills, creative and critical thinking, and professionalism,” according to organizers.

“Every single kid last year became more confident in themselves,” said Mike Dugan,Cape Fear Academy eighth grade language arts teacher, about the success of the program that launched last year.

Students tackled a range of projects including designing the ultimate classroom, improving services for the local homeless population, organizing a track and field day for under-funded schools, developing a gigantic tablet to communicate with grandma and prototyping a shoe with replaceable soles. The students learn how to take an idea from start to finish.

“We’re seeing a conceptual and philosophical change in how we approach our kids. The cookie cutter assembly line of education is not as effective anymore,” Dugan said.

Middle School Week is the brainchild of middle school technology teacher Jennifer Fullagar, who was inspired after reading, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for aChanging World, which offered some new strategies to engage students in learning. As a technology teacher, Fullagar incorporates a lot of project-based learning into her lessons. But she wanted to extend these learning opportunities to more students at Cape Fear Academy.

About 150 middle school students formed 21 teams this year in Middle School Project Week. The normal class schedule was suspended to allow the teams to get out of the classroom and work together. The emphasis on hands-on, project-based learning offers a refreshing change to the traditional classroom model.

“It highlights students who are absolutely brilliant, but [whose talent] doesn’t show in the classroom,” she said.

Each team is randomly grouped with a cross-section of sixth, seventh and eighth graders.They learn how to communicate with each other, organize, lead and work together.

“You have kids who want to do everything and kids who don’t want to do anything,” Dugan said. But, they all learn how to balance everything together.

Community leaders from local businesses, non-profit organizations and the university came onto campus to mentor the teams. Along with Cape Fear Academy faculty mentors, the community coaches organize icebreakers and help the teams work through problems.

Because it is collaborative and outside the traditional classroom model, teachers have seen students who are usually introverted become more extroverted and those with attention problems more engaged in the activity-based learning.

Students develop a variety of skills from each of the requirements, which include incorporating five different disciplines, documenting their sources and conducting an interview with an expert off-campus for their research.

“There is a specific skill set you need to have to do an interview. By having them do that as sixth to eighth graders, it provides them with a lifelong lesson,” Dugan said.

Cape Fear Academy has been a leader in the educational community of southeastern North Carolina since 1967. Known for its academic excellence and outstanding college preparatory program, the pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade curriculum emphasizes hands-on learning across academic disciplines. For more information, visit www.capefearacademy.org or call (910) 791-0287.