A tale of two projects

Exploring the benefits of a project that allows for group dynamics and relationship building.

While incorporating 21st century skills and project-based approach into out-of-school learning, it is important to maintain the benefits of relationship building and life-skill exploration. “Staying relationship-focused in a project-based world” explores how these areas can overlap and complement each other. With that in mind, what do two simple projects look like when compared for team and relationship building benefits? Let’s consider a friendly paper airplane competition and building a marshmallow pasta tower – two widely used, simple projects.

First, the paper airplanes. Youth in a small group with an adult mentor are given a stack of paper and simple instructions: “Everyone build a paper airplane and we will see how far they can go!” Young people jump right in on this familiar task and start folding away. The adult mentor might build their own and pop in to chat with each young person on their creation. Once the planes are complete, everyone takes turns launching their airplanes. Afterwards, there is the opportunity for the mentor to lead a group discussion on how their designs worked and what they would change, and the group can even try new designs.

Next, the marshmallow towers. A group of youth and their mentor are given some pasta noodles and mini marshmallows with the challenge of building the tallest tower possible. Although not explicitly said, the group realizes they need to work together on one tower rather than building individual ones. The youth jump right in grabbing noodles and poking marshmallows while their mentor joins them as another member of the group. After a while, it’s clear there are too many designs happening at once. One young person points this out and the mentor supports his or her idea to give it some traction. The group decides to discuss design options first and take turns adding to the tower. Once completed, they have a pretty tall tower that rivals the other groups around them. The mentor starts interjecting questions, first about how they might change the tower design and then incorporates some discussion about how the group worked well together and highlights everyone’s contributions.

Let’s compare the projects. Some cool stuff happens with simple paper airplanes. Young people can jump in without instructions and really get creative. Afterwards, discussions around what went well and even trying again take place, following an experiential design model. The airplane project gets young people thinking and creating in non-directive ways – goals of project-based approaches. The marshmallow tower also has young people creating designs from scratch, but adds a necessary group dynamic. This has them interacting with each other and their mentor in more meaningful ways—discussing things like leadership and building relationships with each other.

In Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Youth Development programs, finding ways to focus on relationships and life skills is critical as a means to ensure research on positive youth development is part of what we do. Through the Michigan 4-H Tech Wizards program, we are exploring how planned youth mentoring successfully incorporates projects. Collaborating with 4-H program coordinator Jodi Wrzesinski, “Relationships and projects: Developing recommended practices” and “Relationships and projects: Next steps” will start to outline what is working in the field.

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