Watson Chronicle


Support for Educators in the Field

WCE Faculty Continue Successful 4-Year School Collaboration on PBL Projects

Monday, January 27, 2014

Over the past four years, William Sterrett and Angelia Reid Griffin have worked closely with Cape Fear Middle School (CFMS) on a collaborative effort to use project-based learning (PBL) to enhance student success. To start, a group comprised of the principal, 12 teachers, the district curriculum specialist and university faculty members set goals and parameters for the project. A theme, Exploring the Solar System was selected. Then, math, science, language arts, social studies and special education teachers worked collaboratively and individually to develop subject-specific tasks and engage students in the project. The work all came together in a series of displays the students designed and presented to an audience of peers and community members at an event held in the school gym.

Angelia Reid Griffin  William Sterrett

As part of the PBL project, students explored the composition of planets in science class, researched and composed ads to solicit visitors to the planets in language arts and mapped the distance to planets from earth in math class.  Teacher and student enthusiasm for the project was contagious and soon elective teachers joined in, introducing PBL activities in art, technology and music classes. There, students created props, brochures and musical jingles that were proudly added to displays along with work from their core content classes.

Students responded well to the project, saying they learned a lot and it was fun. Several offered ideas for other PBL projects they would like to do in school. The Solar System project is still offered, and another project with the theme Exploring the Rainforest has been added. Sterrett’s and Griffin’s collaboration with the school continues, and the professors are working on ways to measure student efficacy or other quantitative data. They’re also interested in sharing their work with other educators and schools that may benefit from introducing a similar PBL project. Last March, Sterrett and Griffin partnered with current CFMS principal Chris Madden and teachers Barbara Willets and Tara Hulsey as panel presenters at a North Carolina Association for Research in Education (NCARE) conference in Wilmington.  Their presentation, “Voices of Collaboration,” highlighted their work, now in it’s fourth year of implementation at Cape Fear Middle and recently supported by a Watson mini-grant to help further the work.

An article authored by Sterrett and Griffin titled “A Four-Cylinder Engine: Shared Collaborative Ownership as the Vehicle for Enhanced Student Success,” published in the July-Sept 2013 issue of the peer-reviewed Kappa Delta Pi Record, provides a detailed history of the project. Sterrett and Griffin also spoke about the topic at a Scholarship Brown Bag event at the college in November.

Sterrett explained why they chose the analogy. “Just as the four cylinders on an engine work together with equal forces and actions, so did the members of this team in sharing responsibilities to achieve a common goal and product,” Sterrett said.  “Shared ownership by everyone involved was a critical factor for our success.”

The collaborative partnership got underway in 2010 after Edie Skipper, then principal at CFMS posed a question to Sterrett: How do we engage teachers in using project-based learning with students? Skipper asked if WCE faculty could help initiate a process of collaborative planning to enhance student learning. Now Skipper says involving college professors and district leadership was a key factor in the school’s success. “Creating a work environment that connects teachers to university faculty and district leadership benefits everyone,” Skipper says in the Record article. “When teachers and students know that people outside of the school are collaborating to make learning fun and meaningful, they feel a sense of pride that the work they’re doing in the classroom is valued.” She added that university faculty and district leaders benefit, too, when they think about and plan for work on the ‘front lines’ with students.


Sterrett, W., & Reid-Griffin, A. R. (2013). A Four Cylinder Engine: Shared Collaborative Ownership as the Vehicle for Enhanced Student Success. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 49 (3), 131-135.  Issue available: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ukdr20/49/3#.Ut2iMhb0D-Y