RESEARCH & INSIGHTS

3 Middle School Projects that Cultivate Skills Needed For Adulthood

Pop quiz just for the grown-ups: Did your middle-school or high-school classroom reflect the world you live in now? At your workplace, do you sit in rows and work without collaborating? Does your manager give you multiple-choice answers to solve the problems you encounter on the job?

Extra credit question: If you answered no to any of these questions, then describe the kind of classroom you think would have better prepared you for adult life.

Here’s one take from Meera Ramchandran, a science teacher at Joseph Weller Elementary School in Milpitas, California:

“Our classrooms are loud and noisy when good learning is happening.”

Why loud and noisy? Because the majority of class time at Joseph Weller Elementary School is spent in project-based learning, where students work alongside teachers and classmates on rich, real-world projects. Joseph Weller is one of more than 330 schools across 40 states using the Summit Learning Program to personalize education for its students. Summit’s definition of personalized learning and school design are based on 15 years of learning science. By flipping the traditional adult-driven school model and putting students at the center, Summit believes it can equip students with the skills, knowledge, and habits they need to lead a fulfilled life.

To prepare students for the real world, Summit Learning places students in real-world scenarios. Students role play as architects, detectives, geoengineers, activists, and beekeepers.

“There’s nothing that we focus on for kids, that wouldn’t matter for us as adults,” says Adam Carter, Summit’s Chief Academic Officer, about Summit’s project-based learning philosophy.

The 36 Cognitive Skills integrated into Summit projects and that students are assessed on aren’t just those needed to ace the next test; they are transferable, lifelong skills like hypothesizing, identifying patterns, and developing argumentative claims.

Project-based learning makes school meaningful and interesting for students. Summit uses the Buck Institute for Education’s definition of project-based learning: “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

Effective projects are relevant to the real world, rather than isolated within school. Summit Learning students spend the majority of class time immersed in real-world projects. The Summit Learning Platform houses more than 200 projects. The following are examples of projects that Summit Learning schools use to give students a taste of the real world, and the cognitive skills developed in each.

3 Middle School Projects That Give Students a Taste of the Real World


Beekeeping at Conner Middle School

  • Grade: 7
  • Subject: Science/Interdisciplinary
  • Cognitive Skills Assessed: Selecting Relevant Sources, Making Connections & Inferences, Argumentative Claim, Counterclaims, Selection of Evidence, Oral Presentation

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(Gallery of beekeeping project photos courtesy Julia Hansel)

Students at Conner Middle School in Hebron, Kentucky were recently challenged to solve a problem right on their campus — where to relocate the beehives housed on the rooftop of their school. Beekeeping is a true hands-on effort for Julia Hansel’s seventh graders. In 2015, Hansel’s students built and installed the hives on the rooftop of the Boone County school. The following year, her students extracted the honey and marketed it to the local community.

But this school year when district leaders asked for the beehives to be moved to a safer spot for insurance concerns, Hansel didn’t give up on her project. Instead of leaving the decision making up to the adults, the innovative teacher gave her seventh graders the reins.

Hansel designed a five-week project for them to create proposals for the relocation of the apiary. During the project, students studied honeybees, the honeybee colony caste system, and hive maintenance. They collected data on local traffic patterns, predator threats, water sources, sunlight direction. They applied this knowledge to develop a convincing argument for the best location for the beehives.

“The skills used in this project are the same skills used in the business world,” says James Brewer, principal at Conner Middle School.

Brewer sat on the judging panel for the final presentations, along with Boone County Schools facilities directors, and John Meier, a member of the board of the Northern Kentucky Beekeeper’s Association.

The winning spot for relocation? The school’s own courtyard. Now Hansel can continue immersing her students in a real-world scenario — beehive maintenance, honey extraction, and marketing.

Ancient Egypt Living Museum at McKinley School for the Arts

  • Grade: 6
  • Subject: Humanities
  • Cognitive Skills Assessed: Informational / Explanatory Thesis, Organization (Transitions, Cohesion, Structure), Style and Language (Tone, Academic Language, Syntax), Oral Presentation

In this sixth grade Ancient Civilizations unit, students study the major aspects of Ancient Egyptian civilization including its geography, leadership, religion, culture, and daily life. As students study each element, they create an artifact to demonstrate what they have learned.

The project culminates in students assembling everything they have created into a living museum.

Instead of an “arts and crafts project where everyone is doing the same thing,” sixth-grade teacher Lauren Partma says this project is designed to empower students to think outside of the box. Partma uses the Summit Learning Program in her 6th grade ELA and Social Studies classes at McKinley School of the Arts in Pasadena, California.

middle school projects
A sixth grader from McKinley School for the Arts stands next to his life-size tomb he constructed as part of a living museum on Ancient Egypt.

“I let my kids take complete ownership of this project which I think paid off because they were invested in the outcome,” Partma says. Variations on the final product included a cardboard 3D model, a pop-up book, and even a life-size tomb.

“The creativity the platform allows the students to explore within themselves is truly amazing,” Partma says.

Projects like this let students “experience life,” she adds. When training to be a teacher, she says she didn’t truly learn until she was actually teaching. Similarly for her students, she says “tests and paperwork don’t prepare you for life. You don’t know what you’re doing until you’re in it. I tell my students they will fail, and I will fail, but it’s about getting back up again.”

Dream Home Designs at Lee Elementary

  • Grade: 8
  • Subject: Math
  • Cognitive Skills Assessed: Selecting Relevant Sources, Asking Questions, Designing Processes and Procedures, Comparing/ Contrasting, Precision

In the Dream Home project, eighth graders apply geometry and personal finance knowledge to design and budget for their dream home. Carl Stalla, a math teacher at Chicago Public Schools’ Lee Elementary for 15 years, created the project to force students to think about their future beyond the classroom — not only drawing the blueprints, but envisioning a path to buying the home someday.

middle school projects
The Dream Home Project, created by Chicago Public Schools teacher Carl Stalla, is an example of how teachers can adapt the Summit curriculum for their classroom’s individual needs.

Prior to teaching, Stalla built homes in Naperville, Illinois for a living. He decided to bring that expertise to the classroom. Teaching is his way of paying it forward, he says.

“Math can be boring, it can be worksheets,” Stalla says. “I try to make it more lively.”

In the project, students imagine they are college graduates with their first job, on the market for their first home. After browsing blueprints online, students pick one and divide the image into 2×2-inch boxes. Students then use proportional relationships to transfer the design to architectural paper, divided into 4×4-inch boxes. Stalla hopes by the end of the project, students will be able to align their daily schoolwork with future work ambitions.

“They leave eighth grade with a dream home in their pocket and a plan to get there,” he says.

Some of Stalla’s former students took the real-world project and made it a reality of their own. Checking in with alumni last year, Stalla found that 12 of his former students are pursuing careers in architecture thanks to the Dream Home project.

More Complexity, Less Compliance

Brian Johnson, a former middle school science teacher at Summit Public Schools, says switching to project-based learning meant he was “helping students learn how to think and act like scientists” rather than “helping them memorize certain equations and certain facts and figures.”

If the point of education is to prepare students for the “real world,” shouldn’t we, as educators, give them a chance to develop meaningful arguments and engineer solutions for real-world problems? Shouldn’t curriculum demand more complexity and less compliance?

Read more about the learning science behind Summit’s school design and why it prioritizes project-based learning in The Science of Summit whitepaper.

This post is the third in a series featured on EdWeek’s Next Gen Learning in Action blog. Each month, Summit will share more about its three pillars of personalized learning — project-based learning, individual pathways, and 1:1 mentoring — and the implementation of these pillars in Summit Learning classrooms across the country. 

About the author

Katie is a storyteller at Summit Public Schools, shining a spotlight on inspirational stories from the Summit Learning community. She started her career in journalism, covering K-12 education in the Bronx. Katie won a feature writing award from the Education Writers Association for her higher ed coverage in Utah. Before arriving at Summit, she earned a master's degree in educational technology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a New York State teaching certification.