P21LogoHorizontalRGBtmThe following is a guest blog post from CEM partner Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s P21Blogazine

Driving Question: What if 2nd graders learned significant reading content through meaningful project work and shared their learning with others?

2nd graders at Katherine Smith School, a Project Based Learning School, in San Jose, California recently finished a PBL about  We read about whales. We thought about whales. We asked questions about whales. We did math problems about whales. We talked and thought about whales and we grouped whales. Then we presented our stories and shared our museum with its student created exhibits including a giant mock up of a whale’s heart.



Although we live in a coastal state, many students have not traveled out of our community to our beaches, much less had any knowledge about whales.  Our project aimed to inspire inquiry into what they wanted to know about these giant creatures of the sea.

Our project launch began with our entry event at the IMax Theater. We saw the movie, “Humpback Whales” The sights and sounds of Humpback whales came alive for the students and the inquiry had begun with as we brainstormed an extensive “Need to Know” list.


In books selected by the students, we began learning about whales, their features and what made them unique. This was followed   by students working together to research different types of whales by using QR codes to access different articles and videos.  They recorded their findings in a research template.  Later, students used this template to write a non-fiction book about a self-selected whale.


The rich vocabulary was made meaningful through the use of GLAD strategies such as a Cognitive Content Dictionary.  Students made predictions about the word, recorded the actual meaning, and created movements for each word.  We also recorded our findings about each whale we studied. We posted a process grid for reference throughout our project.

Midway through our project, we boarded a bus and headed to Cal Academy of Sciences to see a featured exhibit on whales.  Here we saw actual whale skeletons, baleen and learned about whale conservation.


We infused our learning about whales into our math curriculum as well.  Our math unit focused on measurement. Students worked together with non-standard units (whales) to measure their bodies and also spineapply their learning using rulers to create a whale of their choice using given measurements. We used our bodies and laid end to end on our grass field to experience just how large a blue whale was! And then, we used measurements to make the big heart.


After learning about the plight of whales today and watching videos of whales entangled in fishing nets, we decided we wanted to do something to help.  We adopted a whale from the Pacific Whale Foundation whose mission is whale conservation


For our Exhibition, we created an interactive whale museum not only to feature what we learned, but to teach others as well.











  • One team of students collected fifty-gallon milk jugs to illustrate how much a baby blue whale drinks in a day.
  • Another team demonstrated how blubber keeps a whale warm by having visitors put their hands in ice water and then comparing after using a “blubber glove”. capture krill in a simulation using a comb as baleen.
  • One team made a comparison of the actual sizes of various whales. The size of each was measured out by the students and displayed on the wall.
  • The most dramatic display was the life size rendition of a blue whale’s heart with everyone pitching in.

In addition to the museum display, each student  made a digital book about their selected whale. Students were proud to read and display their digital version of their informational whale book, several of which were recorded by the students in their native language.


We ended our STEAM PBL with a student reflection time which revealed the following:

  • My favorite part was presenting that I know that blubber keeps th whales warm.—Ashley
  • I liked people watching my book because other people learn about whales.—Daniela
  • I learned blue whales are the largest animal.—Omar
  • My favorite part was when we made our books and we showed our books to the upper grades because they didn’t know nothing (sic) about whales.—Giselle

Our second grade students ended these reflections with concluding stems noting that  “Whales are enormous”. “They are fascinating.”  “They are special.”  “They need our help.”  These were the ideas that 2nd graders wanted to teach others and were at the heart of this STEAM PBL.

About the Author

liepeltJill Liepelt is a second grade teacher at the P21 Exemplar Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, California. Katherine Smith serves a 98% Hispanic student population. Title I Free and reduced students make up 81% of this school’s population.





You can read added posts from the P21Blogazine on this site or by subscribing to its RSS Feed at www.p21.org for three times per week posts. Monthly themes connect  21st Century Deeper Learning  and the 4Cs theory and practice.

About Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley is a senior technical assistance consultant and Educational Technology and Innovation lead at the American Institutes for Research. His current work focuses on innovative, technology-infused solutions to improve educator professional learning. He is the Project Director for Connected Educator Month and serves in a leadership capacity on several other projects focused on educational technology for K-12 and adult learners.
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