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By Wesley Adkins
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  • project-based learning
  • maths project
  • teacher story

How Project-Based Learning Resulted in a Real-Life Drive-In Cinema

Wesley Adkins, maths algebra 2 and geometry teacher at James Campbell High School (JCHS), Ewa Beach, Hawaii explains how he has used a recent $25,000 grant to bring all areas of the education standards to life for many of his students.

Like the various communities that have lived in Ewa Beach over the years, our students come from very mixed cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I have some students with undiagnosed dyscalculia and others on the spectrum with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or SEND to ensure their academic success and access to the appropriate learning environment.\ The biggest hurdle is that many students lack extrinsic motivation and can get discouraged very easily. They really hate feeling less capable than their peers.

Last year I applied for and won a $25,000 Education Innovation Teacher Challenge grant to run a project incorporating all areas of education. As a film enthusiast all my life, my idea was to create the Ewa Beach Drive-In Cinema! I felt that project-based learning was the best way to harness the students’ varied interests. It would help them develop diverse skills, from calculating the projectors’ pitch onto the screen, to developing business plans and creating a computer app. Because the Drive-In Cinema is an interdisciplinary project, we’re working together with students from all our academies to explore what they’re passionate about.

Innovation to support the challenges

Let’s take maths as the first example. As you can imagine, the second I talk about geometry or maths the students instantly tune out. However, now that we’re working on the Drive-In project, they’re engaged and motivated!

We are currently considering the supply of popcorn. The students are working on calculating the necessary quantities, costs of the corn, the buckets and the machine, and of course how much revenue they need to make the theatre sustainable.\ The next day they use trigonometric ratios to solve problems, including the ideal size for a number of patrons and angle of elevation with respect to the screen. For instance, if it’s 16 feet high and 30 feet wide and the seating area is 50 yard deep, what is the best viewing angle of the screen?

When it comes to student engagement, the success of the project is largely due to gamifying everything we do.

I like using the online maths resource Mangahigh which provides a games-based approach to learning skills. The learning is curriculum-aligned but the problems are delivered in terms of real-life challenges; the students find it a lot easier to visualize the problem and are truly engaged in deciding which mathematical skills they need to calculate the answers. Using these types of resources, I can get them off the conveyor belt of individual maths skills, safe in the knowledge that they are learning these core skills but more importantly, understanding their real-life application.

Measuring our success

For us as a school, looking to engage our students in the fun of learning and helping them to see how it applies to their lives, is a huge measure of the project’s ongoing success.

We are gradually shifting the students’ concept of learning from static classroom-based lessons which simply churn out formulas and problem sets, to getting them to see the big picture; the application of what they are learning.

It is demonstrating the true embodiment of project-based learning that all the teachers at the school are bringing into their teaching, while also following the national standards. The possibilities are limitless. I’m a firm believer that if you can just find something that the students love, they will learn about the rest of the world through that.

To me, that’s success!

Expansion Plans

I am a strong believer in the power of bringing the real world into learning. The level of engagement we have seen from all the students is a testament to the power of this way of learning. So, my advice to other schools is to work with other departments in the school to create similar projects that span all areas of the curriculum.

People ask me if we really are going to create a fully functioning drive-in theatre or whether it’s just a virtual project. The answer is that while the initial objective was to use the project to engage all our students in cross-curricular learning, it has been so successful that we want to take our dream as far as we can.

The initial $25,000 Farmers’ Insurance funding that we won for the project will only go so far. We have invested in many necessary parts of our theatre including a generator but at this stage, we are financially only able to plan for a relatively small outdoor theatre area with a projector screen to display the movies. With a lot more work, a bit of luck and significant positive learning opportunities, our students would love to take this initial trial to a larger level and yes, actually create a fully functional, drive-in theatre business that the Ewa community can enjoy!

My advice to other schools

Believe it or not, I was inspired to reimagine what learning in the 21st century looks like by the late Nipsey Hussle. After seeing the work he put into Vector 90 and STEM education, I started questioning my own teaching pedagogy. I would give other innovators the same advice I got from Nipsey: instead of trying to build a brick wall, lay a brick as perfect as you can every day. Before you know it, you'll have built a wall. In other words, don't lose the tree in the woods.

Rightly so, an innovator lives with their head in the clouds, I know I do, and without an anchor, we drift. I've been successful in getting mentors and coaches in my corner who can both see my vision and also keep me accountable to the bricks I have to lay.

I've learned to lick my wounds and hitch my wagon to the growth mindset these past two years. Failure is part of the process of innovating, and as long as we're learning from our failures, we're on the right path. I can't pretend like this student ran drive-in coming to life is the result of impeccable poise or proclivity for hard work on my part. The only thing unique about me and this dream is an unrelenting persistence to make it all tangible.

By Wesley Adkins
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