Students creating, sharing projects – a winning approach / Joe Nathan’s Column

Joe Nathan

For five hours on Saturday, March 14, I was mesmerized. Students taught me about a range of history subjects as I helped judge websites they produced for Minnesota History Day.

Both research and experience show that what some people call “project-based learning” is a winning approach.

Minnesota History Day allows students to create posters, presentations, research papers and websites on a topic – this year it is “Leadership and Legacy in History.” I was in the group at Harding High School in St. Paul that helped judge students’ websites, which covered an amazing array of subjects, such as IRA hunger strikers, Lee Lue (perhaps the first Hmong fighter pilot), Dorothea Dix, Henry Ford, Ray Kroc and McDonald’s, the Girl Scouts and several more. Other websites covered subjects ranging from John Dillinger, labor journalism, Motown, Nelson Mandela and Oskar Schindler. What impressed me over and over was how much the students told us they learned, the creativity they brought to creation of the websites and the depth of information their websites conveyed.

From left, Minnesota History Day coordinators posing for a photo are, in the back row, Jessica Hobson, Rachel Linde, Kyle Parsons, Joey Novacheck, Jill Hengstler, Sammi Jo Coryell, and in the front row, Sarah Aschbrenner, Tim Hoogland and Coral Moore. (Provided by the Minnesota Historical Society)

Minnesota History Day coordinator Tim Hoogland of the Minnesota Historical Society told me: “Tens of thousands of Minnesota public and private school students, all over the state, participate. The numbers and the enthusiasm are growing.” Regional competitions similar to the one in St. Paul are being held throughout the state.

Hoogland and his colleagues are heroes. They understand that having students work on projects is a great way to generate enthusiasm, interest and, yes, learning.

Researchers have studied the project-based approach and found many benefits. It’s active. It’s focused. Working on a project they helped select engages students rather than allowing them to be passive listeners of a lecture.

A group funded by Star Wars creator George Lucas found: “Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.” (Read more about that at

Other research on project-based learning reached similar conclusions. One of the best research studies found similar results and added another point. Some youngsters who have not done well with traditional approaches are “pleasant surprises” when given the opportunity to work on a project that they helped create. (A review of that research is available online at

To view some of the Minnesota History Day projects that have won national awards, visit For more information about Minnesota History Day and the people who help make it happen throughout the state, go to

Every minute of every school day can’t be devoted to projects. But projects, like those promoted by Minnesota History Day, appear to be one of the really well-researched, good ideas in education.

Thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society for being active promoters of active learning. Thanks also to Hoogland and his colleagues, who’ve taken a good idea and carried it out very well. And finally, thanks to Minnesota history teachers, who promote and encourage students to participate.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.