Student Voice in a Project-Based Learning Environment

By Alli Westra-Smith • May 10, 2019

Hi! My name is Alli Westra-Smith and I’m going to tell you about my school called Minnesota New Country School.

MNCS is a project-based charter school in Henderson, MN. I’ve been going here for six years. I spent three years at the school’s new elementary school and this is my third year at the middle/high school campus. Being one of the first students to attend the elementary school, I got firsthand experience in starting up a project-based school in the primary levels.

Project-based learning is where we learn through projects. For example: if there were state standards and requirements revolving around social studies I needed to meet, I could choose how to learn about the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and about the change they inspired, and I would get social studies credit for that instead of taking a class as you would do at a traditional school. If I didn’t have any specific standards I needed to meet for a while then I could do a project that is about my interests.

I recently did a project about photography—specifically of people and making them my models to show that it doesn’t matter what you look like or who you are to be a model. I did this project because I knew I that I loved photography but had never done it to this extent. I got art standards for this project.

With project-based learning your interests come first and then you incorporate parts to learn about that correlate with standards you need. Your needs and interests are valued.

The amount of student voice that we have at our school is astounding. If we want to change a rule that we don’t agree with—and can put up a valid argument—then we pass a bill through student congress followed by the staff. The officials of student congress are elected by the student body. This year I ran for the position of Vice President of the student body, and won!

We also have extracurriculars such as a speech, Knowledge Bowl, and archery. We have had the Knowledge Bowl team get second place at Regionals for the past two years and this year we had a duo from the speech team go to State and get fourth place. We don’t have sports teams but we do partner with Le Sueur-Henderson school district for this area. Students from our school can participate in sports there. We currently offer baseball, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls cross country, softball, boys and girls track and field, and volleyball.

I’ve grown up knowing about project-based learning, having had my older siblings attend this school, but I didn’t understand it until I came to a project-based school myself. I can tell you with complete confidence that I would rather be here than anywhere else—and that I wouldn’t excel at any other kind of learning the way I do here. If I had to describe project-based learning in one sentence I would say that, overall, project-based learning is an effective, engaging, fun way of learning.