Marine Hydrodynamics Lab DellaVecchia

Motivating and meaningful materials for project-based science

Since Gabe DellaVecchia’s time as a classroom teacher, he has been passionate about creating inclusive and equitable learning opportunities. As a doctoral student in Literacy, Language, and Culture, he does that through the development of innovative, accessible curricula and teacher supports.

DellaVecchia works with a team on a project funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation. The Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning team designs project-based science curricula for grades 3-5 that will be available to all educators free of charge. These curricula are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, which set expectations for what students should know and be able to do.

Project-based science education starts with a question. Students explore aspects of that question over time, gaining knowledge and skills as they take different paths toward answering the complex question that ignited their imaginations in the beginning. This process of discovery calls on students to be engaged in their own learning as they use evidence to support their claims.

As one example, the Wayfinding unit that DellaVecchia co-developed for grade 5 sets the stage for students to explore science, engineering, literacy, environmental issues, culture, and history. His curriculum transports students across the Pacific Ocean to discover the long history of Polynesian voyagers as they learn about navigation and shipbuilding. Students study the causes and effects of climate change. They develop media to inform others of key environmental issues and share their projects with experts living and working in Hawaii.

The curriculum elevates the knowledge of indigenous people and connects students to real communities around the world. During the pilot of the unit, students built their own models of double-hulled voyaging canoes, inspired by the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s flagship vessel the Hōkūleʻa, and tested them at the University’s Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Hydrodynamics Lab with the assistance of undergraduate volunteers.

During another part of the pilot, students spoke with staff and STEM educational consultants at Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit in Hawaii that helps to develop sustainable startups. After students created and shared videos about pressing environmental concerns, their new friends in Hawaii provided feedback and constructive advice.

DellaVecchia says, “Kids who may be known as struggling learners can achieve amazing success when given opportunities to explore things that interest them, particularly when they are able to show their teachers what they learned through different media.” 

DellaVecchia works with his advisor Annemarie Palincsar, fellow doctoral student Katy Easley, and a team of researchers at other institutions as they test and modify the Multiple Literacies curricula before all resources are made universally available to teachers. “It was a difficult decision for me to give up my own classroom and my own students to enter a doctoral program,” admits DellaVecchia. “But, between the support and resources of the Lucas Education Foundation, the collaboration with my advisor and my colleagues on the Multiple Literacies team, and the generosity of our partner teachers who pilot the lessons, I am able to dedicate my time to developing the kinds of motivating and meaningful materials that I hope will support, and inspire, a large number of teachers and their students.”