Rebecca Rider column: Problem based learning

Published 12:05 am Thursday, April 7, 2016

The problem, I’ve noticed, with covering education is that it’s a topic so loaded with acronyms that talking to someone about it is almost like speaking another language. And I’m always forgetting to ask what they stand for, which has landed me in a little bit of hot water close to deadline. But I’m learning. I’m learning to ask, and – slowly – I’m learning the meanings.

But there’s one acronym in particular that I’ve heard over and over since I started covering education in December: PBL. It stands for “problem based learning” – or “project based learning,” depending on who you’re talking to — and while I had a vague idea of the concept, there’s really nothing like seeing it in action.

I’d thought, initially, that it was something like an activity where students build a structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows, or that puzzle where they make a tower using paper and tape and see how much weight it can hold. But a problem based learning project can be so much more.

Take Beth Houk’s ESL class at China Grove Elementary. Recently, the group of third- through fifth-graders got to practice their language skills and widen their horizons by tackling a real world problem: marketing fair trade coffee from small farms half a world away.

It’s a project that started when Houk showed her students a video from Cup of Compassion, an organization that seeks to empower small coffee farms in Liberia. When the video was over, Houk asked her students if they’d noticed a problem the class might be able to solve.

The kids immediately pointed out that, after a decade of civil war left a decimated infrastructure, smaller farmers didn’t really have any way to market their products in the U.S. – even if they partnered with organizations like Cup of Compassion.

It began a frenzy of research, with each child learning all he or she could about Liberia and coffee growing. They made colorful posters to place on walls all around the school – each equipped with a QR code that allowed students and teachers access to a short, informative video narrated by Houk’s class on one of Cup of Compassion’s four coffee blends.

After they advertised, it was time to bring out the samples. Houk ordered one of each blend, and teachers at China Grove Elementary sampled one each day. The idea is to get teachers, and other community members, to order their coffee from Cups of Compassion, which supports small farms.

“We are convincing people to change brands,” Houk said.

After the taste testing, the class brainstormed other ways to get the word out, and came up with a new advertising location: local churches.

“Many churches provide free coffee in the mornings,” Houk said.

Students will brush up their penmanship and writing skills by sending letters to area churches. Many students volunteered to hand-deliver letters to their own churches.

Houk’s students were excited, not only by the prospect of advertising for small farms, but by other projects funded by Cup of Compassion. Proceeds from sales go to community projects such as funding schools and medical clinics in addition to providing a sustainable income to farmers.

As this project wraps up, Houk’s students are already asking if they can send school supplies to other students, just like them, an ocean and a continent apart.

Contact education reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264 or