What Can You Do with an Idea? An Award-Winning PBL Program

Community, EdLeaders, Leadership, Learner Experience, Learning, Project-Based World, Smart Teachers

This post originally published on the Buck Institute for Education’s blog and is based on an interview conducted by Mary Ryerse, Director of Strategic Design at Getting Smart, with Kathy Lutes, a teacher at New Life Academy.

We sat down with teacher Kathy Lutes, who features Project-Based Learning (PBL) in her classroom and recently received a statewide award for her work.

Kathy, a teacher at New Life Academy in Woodbury, Minnesota, invited her students to come up with an idea for a project, and then act upon it. Students chose topics ranging from serving the homeless to building castles to inventing an attachment to a medical device that would make life better for a young patient who doesn’t have a functioning immune system.

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Kathy wanted her students to know that their ideas really can change the world. In true form, Kathy taught a mini-lesson during her acceptance speech at the award ceremony, reading from the book What Do You Do With an Idea?  The punchline of the book – “What you do with an idea? You change the world!” – was also the focus of her students’ projects.

What was the inspiration for you to begin implementing project-based learning?

A quote from Roger Lewin encouraged the idea of these projects: “Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.” These projects encouraged research and perseverance to help students create their final products.

What are some examples of projects?

Some projects were built upon more service-minded aspects than others; here are a few examples:

Helping the Homeless. Two 5th graders wanted to find products for the homeless, so they began collecting coats, toiletries, and other necessary products that they donated to two shelters in the Twin Cities. With their grant, they were able to purchase additional products.

Adding Natural Beauty to the School. A 5th grader received a grant to plant a tree next to a soccer field and playground. She planted a linden tree so that it would match the one next to it.

Bringing Some “Play” to the St. Paul Children’s Hospital. One student spoke about wanting to make something that would help her sister who “goes to the hospital often” for intravenous treatments. Her sister, Milena, suffers from primary immunodeficiency. It is a genetic disease in which her body cannot produce healthy antibodies. She frequently needs to go to the hospital for IVIG (IV therapy for immunoglobulins).

After hearing her mom talk about how hard it was to push the stroller and the IV pole at the same time, the student, Marie, used a dog harness and strap to create a puppy pole for her sister so she could ride around and walk around the halls while pulling her pole. This was done out of love for her sister. Hopefully, someday, something like this can be patented for other children in other hospitals.

Other students chose projects such as creating a kids’ cookbook with nutritious snacks, some learned to code and some have done a STEAM project creating a miniature golf course. One student made a trash sculpture, others have written stories or created maps or designed buildings using toothpicks. One girl decided to memorize every country of the world. Watch this video about some of the projects.

Were there partnerships to support this work?

Some of these projects have, in turn, been rewarded with $250 grants from Thrivent Financial. Thrivent is a unique organization, simultaneously a Fortune 500 financial services organization and a not-for-profit membership organization. Thrivent is committed to enhancing service and education. Each student had to write up a proposal to send to Thrivent, and from there, Thrivent either approved, asked more questions, or disapproved the project for a grant. New Life Academy thanks Thrivent Financial for its generosity.

What did students learn?

As a teacher, I am proud not only of the beautiful ideas and work they have produced, but also of their perseverance. I’m excited about the lasting lessons they’ve learned from solving these problems.

Perseverance was a major lesson that the students learned from these projects. Students are used to having a shorter amount of time to work on assignments like this, but this one lasted a little over a month, so they needed to revamp and get excited about asking new questions and finding new answers.

Students have taken away many valuable lessons from these projects. One student’s take away was, “There are many ways to reach one goal.” Another said, “Without teamwork, there is no way to get everything done.”

New Life Academy is part of the Minnesota Independent School Forum, an organization committed to strengthening Minnesota’s independent schools through advocacy and advancement.

Thanks to Kathy and other teachers who change the world each day. What do you do with an idea? You change the world!

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Mary Ryerse

Mary Ryerse

Mary is a Getting Smart Director of Strategic Design.


Karen Bruning /

What a creative use of a good idea! Good article.