How to Lead a Successful Problem Based Learning Project: 2nd Grade Reduces Garbage in the Cafeteria

Have you ever noticed the amount of garbage that leaves your school cafeteria on a daily basis? I never did until I was assigned to cafeteria duty. When it was time for the children to clean up after they were finished eating, I was simply astounded at the amount of food that was being tossed; food that was packaged and never opened and other food that was never touched. When I thought about all of the energy that went into growing the food, packaging the food, transporting the food, buying the food, storing the food, and then sending it to school to only be thrown away, I was concerned about what this meant for our environment. This was a real problem that needed to fixed, and what a better way to fix it but to guide children through a problem based learning experience about recycling and composting.

Steps to Leading a Successful Problem Based Learning Experience

  1. Enlist a Group of Collaborators. Once I started to discuss the problem with the staff at our school, it was encouraging to understand that others were just as concerned as I was about the wasted food. The Head Custodian, the Cafeteria Manager, and the entire second grade teaching staff were all interested in working on a problem based learning experience for second grade children to begin reducing the amount of trash in the cafeteria.
  2. Brainstorm Ideas. Before we even broached the idea of recycling or composting with children, the team of collaborators met over four lunch breaks to share any and all ideas of the best way to implement a problem based learning experience. We all agreed that we should start with posing an essential question to the children about how to reduce the amount of waste in our cafeteria, and then give them the opportunity to discover different ways to make a change.
  3. Find Funding for Field Trips, Books, and Supplies. The Toshiba America Foundation and the State of Connecticut Department of Education funded a field trip to the Trash Museum in Hartford and paid for informational books and composting supplies. Check your State Department of Education to see what grants are available and visit The Toshiba America Foundation website as it offers grants throughout the year for project based learning experiences.
  4. Pre Test. We began the project with a pretest. I created a survey using Google Forms that asked the children to write about what they do with their trash after they are finished eating.
  5. Begin Inquiry Process. The teachers introduced the project by showing the children images of garbage from their cafeteria and dumps. They were asked what they noticed about the pictures, what they saw, and what could they do about the trash.
  6. Getting to Work Once the children found answers to their questions from visiting the Trash Museum and reading books about composting and recycling, they were ready to get to work. The team of collaborators decided to start small in the classroom by collecting compostable and recyclable materials only with snack foods. Then, after the composting supplies were purchased and delivered, we decided to go a little bigger by asking students to compost once a week in the cafeteria under the careful eye of a teacher, and they only composted raw fruits vegetables. After a few weeks, the children were ready to independently put their raw fruits and vegetables in the composting pail in the cafeteria.
  7. Share the Learning The children were so passionate about reducing the amount of trash in our cafeteria, that they created posters, games, and videos to educate others about composting and recycling. They even invited a group of high school students to learn about the composting process and offered to give the high school composting material for their school garden.

Here is a podcast about what one second grade student has to say about the project:


8. Post Test. I created another Google Form asking the same question as was asked of them with the pretest. I was not surprised to note that this problem based learning experience made our second grade children think about how they should package their lunch for school and what they should recycle and compost.

Are you noticing problems in your school that students might be able to find a solution to and learn a great deal along the way? If so, what are they?


Author: Maureen Schlosser

Author: Lessons Inspired by Picture Books for Primary Grades and Social and Emotional Learning for Picture Book Readers published by ALA Editions
Skillshare Teacher:

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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