Evergreen School District News

How Big is My Dinosaur? - A Closer Look at Integrating Content using Project Based Learning
Posted 03/23/2015 02:20PM

Rachel Trowbridge

The primary quad was covered with groups of 2nd grade students who were spread out with large posters, markers, and rulers measuring, drawing, and collaborating over how to design a dinosaur that measured up to specific lengths outlined by the teachers. The activity was a formative assessment given in the middle of our project, "What happened to all of the dinosaurs?" This multidisciplinary project brought together critical language arts standards, foundational reading skills, high-interest science, and, even, math.

Today, we wanted to see if students could apply what they had learned about measurement and incorporate that with what they knew about dinosaurs. Each group was given the freedom to make the dinosaur look however they wanted and some even thought they should give their newly created dinosaur species a name. "I called mine a 'Mixasaurus,' because it needed to be like a combination of five different dinosaurs because the lengths of the arms and legs were all different," said Bin, a second grader. Students swapped dinosaurs and double-checked each other's measurements. The engagement level of this activity was high as students were able to make a connection between measuring objects and creating something new given specific parameters.

A highly integrated, standards based, cross-curricular project is always the goal, but is one of the hardest things to accomplish. Teacher collaboration has to exist if we are to find ways to get our students interested and involved in their learning. We have learned to rely on each other to bounce ideas off of, challenge one another's comfort zones, and push ourselves to create authentic learning opportunities for our students at Katherine Smith.

Overall, we found that our students are more engaged during project time, but often lost engagement at other times during the day. In grade level teams, consideration is given to multiple subject areas to make projects as cohesive and comprehensive as possible. In the dinosaur project, 2nd grade teachers focused on standards in the areas of science, math, and English language arts and effectively managed a daily schedule that incorporated dinosaurs into every aspect of the instructional day. For language arts, we supported claims with evidence. For science, we used the high interest topic of dinosaurs to show how things change over time. Math was the most difficult.


The district adopted math curriculum has a suggested scope and sequence that we made an effort to adhere to because the skills spiraled throughout the series. Making a particular unit "fit" into a project because it happened to be the next unit in line was not working for us. There was a large disconnect and math was taught in isolation outside of the project. The big "a-ha" moment for our 2nd grade team came when we decided to take a risk and find a unit, measurement, that would fit within our project, even if that meant teaching a unit out of order. We wanted to make math meaningful for our students and we knew that the way to do that was to incorporate it into a project. We knew we would have to address issues that came up in regards to topics that had spiraled and were included in units that weren't taught yet. We were willing to deal with those issues in exchange for the increased engagement of our students.

Students learned how to measure using non-standard and standard units of measurement, how to estimate the lengths of items inside and outside of the classroom, and how to compare the lengths of two different objects to find the difference. They also learned about five specific dinosaurs, including how tall they were, how long their arms and legs were, and how fast they could move. We consistently used terminology that was used in our math lessons when talking about the dinosaurs. Engagement and interest level was high. Now it was time to see if they were able to apply those skills.

During the formative assessment task where students designed their dinosaurs, we were able to tell that most students retained the concepts that were taught during the measurement unit and apply those concepts to an area outside of a traditional math setting. Each team was able to translate measurements and create models of dinosaurs. There was healthy negotiations in the student groups over whether it should be a two-legged or four-legged creature, where to draw the arms and legs, and how fat or skinny to make the extremities. The thing that didn't need to be discussed was how to measure the lengths that was required.

The project was highly engaging and students enjoyed the work as it stretched across each day's agenda. So why not push in a little elementary school fun, too? We even added a song and dance that students performed flash mob style at the end of project exhibition. Check it out:

As we continue to hone our practice and design projects that are both highly rigorous and engaging to our students, we know that we can and need to:

  • integrate math throughout our project
  • find ways to have students make connections to the content, and
  • provide authentic opportunities for those connections.

If we can do these things, we will be able to provide our students the opportunities to not only participate in meaningful projects, but give them the stage they need to demonstrate to others their learning and mastery of content standards and 21st century competencies.

Cedar Grove Elementary School

  • 2702 Sugarplum Drive
  • |
  • San Jose, CA 95148-2042
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  • Phone: 408-270-4958
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  • Fax: 408-223-4852
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