Seattle Public Schools

Project-based Learning at Thornton Creek and Cedar Park

Summary: Cedar Park and Thornton Creek elementary schools allow students to choose their own adventure through expeditionary learning and IDEA time.

Big IDEAS: Students at Cedar Park, Thornton Creek Create Their Own Learning Pathway 

Cedar Park Students Creating Their Own Path in Learning

Nestled in the northernmost area of the school district sits Cedar Park Elementary, a little school with big IDEAS. The staff there have found a way to give students a say in what they want to learn by creating enrichment classes based on their interests. The students then take what they’ve learned and apply it to their core curriculum through expedition projects. 

It’s called IDEA Time, which stands for Investigate, Design, Engage, and Ask Why. Every four weeks, students fill out a survey expressing their interests, and once teachers have a sense of what those interests are, they build classes that range from board game creation to mixing potions to recess from around the world.  

A student holds a guinea pig and talks with a teacher

The structure allows students across all grade levels to spend one hour every Wednesday in project-based learning while also having fun. Cedar Park launches IDEA time in October and has a new class every four weeks until mid-winter break, giving students four different IDEA Time offerings throughout the year based on student interest.   

“It’s a time where students can actually choose what they’re interested in, take a class, ask questions, and have a little bit more freedom than in a normal school day,” said Bridgette Kolias, the school’s attendance specialist and the coordinator of IDEA time.  

Kolias has been a part of IDEA Time since its inception. Over the years, it has evolved into a team effort with the whole staff helping to share in the planning and execution. She said it is a great way for students to get to know each other and other teachers around the school.  

“A lot of the classes are [kindergarten to fifth grade] mix, so your fifth-grade teacher knows your kindergarteners, your kindergarten teachers know your fourth-grade students,” she said. “It’s also a really good time for our older students to take leadership roles in the program.” 

Cedar Park uses IDEA Time as a launchpad for expeditionary learning. Principal Andrew Zillig said IDEA Time classes have a direct tie to the expedition projects the students put together.  

“The skills and subject matters in the IDEA Time can be used later for the expeditionary learning they do,” Zillig said. “Whether it’s a direct tie to the content area or the skills they’re learning, they can use it in their presentation or in the research of expedition that it’s associated.” 

Because IDEA Time happens during the school day, it eliminates barriers like transportation or cost. 

“It’s the best of both worlds because I get to do all of this enrichment with the kids and come up with ideas, and I get to be creative and work with all the teachers and collaborate with them,” Kolias said. “All of the students, parent volunteers, people from in the community … it’s actually the best job in the world. I love it!” 

Leading Their Learning at Thornton Creek

At Thornton Creek Elementary, students spend each year delving into and exploring topics as part of their expeditionary learning approach.  

This project-based learning approach gives students the opportunity to discover different aspects of a broad topic along with their peers while enhancing the standard district curriculum. Each grade level selects a single topic to study deeply over the course of the year.  This topic then provides the basis for authentic application of literacy and STEM skills.   

“Expeditionary learning situates students as leaders of their own learning,” said Gerrit Kischner, Thornton Creek Elementary principal. “They can get passionate and go deep into a subject as part of deeper learning.” 

The expedition approach is broken up into three main projects throughout the school year and ends in an expedition celebration. At this event, students showcase all they have learned during the year.  

Expedition topics vary for each grade, and this year, Thornton Creek’s fifth graders are focusing on human rights.  

A student with two students behind them stand in front of a classroom at a music stand

One of their first projects was to create a fictional candidate running for office. Students spent a few months researching universal human rights, the U.S. election process, and branches of government. 

In groups, students chose from different human rights topics as a base for their candidate’s platform. They ended the project by pitching their candidate and platform to classmates and teachers.  

A group of students listens in a classroom to another student giving a speech

By the end of the year, each student has been exposed to much more than in-depth knowledge of a topic.   

“[Expeditions] inspire the kids and motivate them to take reading and writing opportunities that they may not participate in otherwise,” said Mim Turnbull, Thornton Creek teacher. 

Thornton Creek students plan to showcase their expeditions on June 22.  

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