Sit down, relax and learn about how Rockets, Elephants, Sharks, and Hockey all exist in harmony in a small classroom at Middle Park High School. That is until the Rockets blast off (I might add safely in the school’s parking lot).

Under the guidance of their teacher, Vicki Sordyl, Director of Project-Based Learning and with the assistance of community mentors, middle school kids have started a variety of projects to educate themselves, and us, on their choice of projects. This activity is all done under a national program by the Buck Institute for Education Project Based Learning. The participating students are all between the 4th and 8th grades. Let’s take a closer look at three of their current projects.

Four students have undertaken the daunting project of educating us on Orphan Elephants (named this when their parents are killed typically by poachers). Brielle, Faith, Elaine and Inayara are working together to develop a presentation and website to detail how Orphan Elephants survive and what’s being done to help them survive. This talented group of students have also developed a website, which you see by visiting the link at the end of this article.

Zac is working on an eBook that details Safety in Hockey, a subject I found interesting because I’ve never played Hockey or considered what players do to protect themselves in such a rugged sport. Zac’s eBook reviews the history of hockey and discusses the essential equipment used to protect the players, which is a lot more gear than you might think.

For those of us who have seen the well-known movie October Sky, it’s fun to see three students, Kayden, Davonte and Franklin, working on Rocket Science. Their draft presentation includes many interesting Rocket facts. But studying about rockets was not enough for this group, so they recruited Charlie Teichman, a rocket aficionado, to mentor them. Once Charlie prepared the Rocket, the entire group moved to the parking lot where, after a brief explanation by Charlie, the group started the countdown to launch, followed by a flight straight up of several hundred feet and the slow drift down with the help of a parachute. The group was so excited that they convinced Charlie to do a second launch.   

I also mentioned Sharks in the title because this group studied Hammerhead Sharks last semester. Their study focused on the Hammerhead’s traits and the many challenges to its survival. It struck a personal note because 15 years ago I had the opportunity to swim with Hammerheads. While on vacation in Egypt my son and I went on a dive trip in the Red Sea. Our boat anchored near a reef well known for its sea life. And we weren’t disappointed! Our first dive on the protected side of the reef proved to be one of the most beautiful dives I’ve ever done. Incredible sea life was all around. The second dive was to the unprotected side, devoid of almost all sea life. We were warned that we might see some Hammerheads and to not panic. Shortly into the dive a “scout” Hammerhead appeared 100 feet off to our right. We kept still on the sea floor and only turned our heads to look. Shortly thereafter a large group of Hammerheads joined their scout (I guess we didn’t look frightening). We counted 22 Hammerheads in total, as well as a rarely seen Thresher Shark, a record for the month as we later learned.   

As Ms. Sordyl explained, and I observed, mentors are an important part of the Project Based Learning project. Charlie has been launching rockets for years and enjoys not only the actual launch but also working with students to understand the science behind rocketry. In the movie October Sky, where the “Rocket Boys” locate a missing rocket using advanced math to calculate the Rockets flight, you know that rocketry is a perfect subject for STEM-type school programs. Each of the PBL students has a mentor. Deb Buhayar is mentoring Elaine. Carin Aichele is mentoring Brielle & Faith. Kim Bunning, an EGMS math teacher is mentoring Franklin. Lindsay Dalton, a MPHS English teacher is mentoring Zac. Julie Eaton, a GES staff member, is mentoring Inayara. Charlie is mentoring Kayden & Davonte.

On May 10th, in room 303 of the Middle Park High School, the students will be presenting their findings and reports starting at 9:00 am. You can also go to the below website to learn more about Orphan Elephants at the website developed by Brielle, Faith, Elaine and Inayara. See you there!

The Orphan Elephant website link is

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