It’s not enough to teach the basics anymore.

Just ask Nikki Armstrong, a 27-year-old language arts teacher at Bettendorf Middle School, who is pushing much more than literacy this spring with her 62 seventh-graders.

During one of her class periods in April, for example, while 10 of her students researched the Flint, Mich., water crisis, a separate group of students pieced together wooden garden boxes they later filled with drought-resistant plants.

The fourth-year teacher is helping lay the groundwork for project-based learning at the middle school, where students and faculty are set on tackling environmental issues.

“My kids shouldn’t be leaving my room with just an understanding of basic grammatical rules and sentence structure,” said Armstrong, who graduated from Augustana College. “They need to leave with a larger sense of the world around them, and that’s what I strive for.”

Throughout the past six weeks, Armstrong has motivated her students to burst their Bettendorf bubbles and study water conservation, an issue several of them didn't know existed before this year.

They've read post-apocalyptic novels about worlds without water, examined fresh water scarcity in the southwestern United States and brainstormed ways to conserve water. They've met with experts in the community — and not just in Iowa — including folks at Living Lands & Waters, the Quad-City Botanical Center and Quad-Cities Waterkeepers of the Upper Mississippi River.

They also have blogged about their learning and put aspects of it into practice.

Donte Dunn, a 13-year-old student in Armstrong’s class who recently moved back to the Quad-Cities from Florida, said he has changed his habits this spring.

“Droughts aren’t something you can joke around with,” said Dunn, who sports a pair of purple-framed eyeglasses. “When I brush my teeth, I don’t keep the water running anymore — that’s a lot of water you can use for something else.”

This isn’t the first time Armstrong is teaching outside the box.

Her seventh-grade students last year designed and built a 9-foot by 15-foot home, which incorporated only those features essential for living, an undertaking that made use of a $2,000 grant.

In recognition of her students’ “tiny home” project, Armstrong received the John Finnessy Innovation in Education Award and $500 from the Bettendorf Community Schools Foundation. She used the money for building and gardening materials, including drought-tolerant plants, such as cacti, sedums and succulents.

Chad Uhde, an instructional coach at Bettendorf Middle School who assists students with the actual hammer-and-nail construction, is a fan of Armstrong’s hands-on ideas.

“She has these crazy ideas, and we’re bringing them to life,” he said from his office, which doubles as project work space. “For me, it’s the highlight of my day to get a kid in here who finds success with a drill in their hand.”

London Hockaday, a 12-year-old student, eagerly waited to handle the tools under Armstrong and Uhde's watch. 

“My parents don’t let me use a nail gun or a saw, but I think it’s fun," she said. 

Project-based learning, which several districts across the country are implementing in their schools, is becoming more than just a trend, according to specialists with the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency.

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Daniel Nietzel, a student engagement consultant at the agency, said project-based learning incorporates 21st-century skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving that tie into Iowa Core standards.

“When you have students create something that connects them with the community, what more powerful learning can there be?” said Nietzel, who formerly taught in Muscatine, where he adopted project-based learning in his classroom. "It transformed me as a teacher." 

Armstrong stressed that her students are exploring areas of study that she's interested in knowing more about.

"I'm learning right next to them," she said, adding that she visited High Tech High in San Diego this year to pick up tips from a school that has based its entire curriculum on project-based learning.

It's the students who are inspiring and spurring these initiatives, according to Lisa Reid, Bettendorf Middle School principal.

“It's really neat," she said. "When we ask them what things are bothering them, we are finding our kids are very concerned about the environment, and that’s leading a lot of our projects." 

And when teachers engage students in subjects they're not only passionate about, but are realistic, thought-provoking problems, teachers said they notice tangible improvements in schoolwork. 

“Any project we take part in, we’re trying to get kids out of these school walls to interact and work with an authentic, real-world audience,” Uhde said. “All of a sudden, it becomes real for them when they learn that someone else cares about this besides their teacher.”

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