Potomac Highlands Watershed School

Project Based Learning and MWEEs

  The Potomac Highlands Watershed School’s Environmental Forums are an example of Project Based Learning, where students seek a solution to a complex problem through a collaborative process over an extended period of time.  When the eForum or other eSchool activities are coupled with hands-on conservation or research projects (click on picture at right) they provide a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE), an expansive form of Project Based Learning that is a curriculum requirement in MD, VA, PA, and D.C.  eSchool lessons are also a good way to satisfy 21st Century Education requirements for use of technology in the classroom. 

CI encourages eSchool classes to look into local issues, identify a problem that would be improved by hands-on efforts, and to then develop and implement a plan to address the issue.  We have, or can help find, technical and financial resources to support such activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.


What is Project-Based Learning?

According to the Buck Institute for Education’s Project Based Learning website, PBL is

an inquiry based process for teaching and learning. In PBL, students focus on a complex question or problem, then answer the question or solve the problem through a collaborative process of investigation over an extended period of time. Projects often are used to investigate authentic issues and topics found outside of school. During the inquiry process, students learn content, information, and facts necessary to draw conclusions about the question. Students also learn valuable skills and habits of mind during the process.

The Buck Institute’s website offers suggestions for designing projects, including reflection and review.  The key to project based learning is hands-on involvement by students in real-world issues.  Students work, often collaboratively, on goal oriented assignments that tie to classroom curriculum. 

According to Edutopia (The George Lucas Foundation’s website): “Adopting a project-learning approach in your classroom or school can invigorate your learning environment, energizing the curriculum with a real-world relevance and sparking students' desire to explore, investigate, and understand their world.”  Edutopia maintains a website on the “why, what, and how of effective project learning.”

Both PBL-online and Edutopia have libraries of project suggestions and methods for groups to share project ideas. 


Why Project Based Learning?

Project based learning (PBL), systematic teaching that enhances life skills by dealing with real-world issues, leads to better academic achievement.  The State Education and Environment Roundtable’s study on Closing the Achievement Gap (1998 Gerald A. Lieberman and Linda L. Hoody) looked at 40 schools from across the United States that used PBL techniques and compared them to “traditional” teaching.  These schools, including four in Pennsylvania and three in Maryland, improve student learning by integrating PBL on the environment into K-12 curricula and school reform efforts. 

They found that PBL on the environment was “not primarily focused on learning about the environment, nor is it limited to developing environmental awareness.  It is about using a school’s surrounding and community as a framework within which students can construct their own learning, guided by teachers and administrators using proven educational practices.  [The] programs typically employ the environment as a comprehensive focus and framework for learning in all areas:  general and disciplinary knowledge; thinking and problem-solving skills, and basic life skills, such as cooperating and interpersonal communications.”

Observed benefits were both broad-ranging and encouraging.  They include: better performance on standardized measures of academic achievement in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies; reduced discipline and classroom management problems; increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning and; greater pride and ownership in accomplishments.

The State Education and Environment Roundtable found that:

  • When students read, write, and speak about topics that interest them, they are more likely to make an effort to strengthen these important skills.  Language arts skills were improved over traditional learning in 93% of cases studied.

  • First-hand experiences in applying math to authentic problems help students understand these skill more thoroughly than traditional education.  Better mastery of math skills was seen in 92% of the cases studied.

  • Involvement in real-world, project-based activities seems to help students refine their abilities in scientific observation, data collection, analysis, and formulating conclusions.  A better ability to apply science to real-world situations was seen in 99% of the cases studied.

  • Studying society in the context of the local environment helps students see the connections between economic, political, legal, and cultural systems.  A greater comprehension of social studies content was seen in 95% of the cases studied.

  • Thinking skills and interpersonal abilities also improved.  The study also found teachers were revitalized through environment-based education.  Ninety-four percent of teachers participating in the study reported “better working relationships with their students and colleagues”.

 Closing the Achievement Gap (1998 Gerald A. Lieberman and Linda L. Hoody)



What is a MWEE

A MWEE, Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience, is described by the Chesapeake Bay Program and NOAA as “an investigative or experimental project that engages students in thinking critically about the Bay watershed. MWEEs are not intended to be quick, one-day activities; rather, they are extensive projects that allow students to gain a deep understanding of the issue or topic being presented. Students participate in background research, hands-on activities and reflection periods that are appropriate for their ages and grade levels.”

The Chesapeake Bay Program maintains a MWEE webpage with background, a guide book, links to Chesapeake Academic Resources for Teachers, and a downloadable lesson plan on Bay history.  Here are reference links to MD, VA, PA, and D.C. initiatives where MWEE is a curriculum requirement.  And here is a NOAA flyer (PDF) on MWEE and Bay program educational resources. 


Visit the Bay Backpack to learn some creative ways to integrate the Chesapeake Bay and environmental issues into classroom lessons. Bay Backpack allows educators to search for books, multimedia, curriculum guides, individual lesson plans and online data sources relevant to schools in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.



Make it a MWEE

Cacapon Institute’s eForums and other eSchool activities, when coupled with hands-on conservation or research projects, can provide a full Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE).  Visit our projects page to see what classes that use our eSchool have done out in the real world. 

CI encourages PHWS classes to look into local issues, identify a problem that would be improved by hands-on efforts, and to then develop and implement a plan to address the issue.  We have, or can usually find, technical and financial resources to support such activities.


Cacapon Institute - From the Cacapon to the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay, we protect rivers and watersheds using science and education.

Cacapon Institute
PO Box 68
High View, WV 26808
304-856-1385 (tele)
304-856-1386 (fax)
Click here to send us an email
Frank Rodgers,  Executive Director

Website  made possible by funding from The Norcross Wildlife Foundation,  the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Virginia Environmental Endowment, NOAA-BWET, USEPA, The MARPAT Foundation, and our generous members.