How One Company is Using Project Based Learning to Educate the Next Generation of Project Leaders

How One Company is Using Project Based Learning to Educate the Next Generation of Project Leaders

By Anne Foley, MBB, CSSBB, PMP, Director of Lean Six Sigma, IIL

When SmartRoots Global CEO Zac Ziebarth visited an impoverished village in Africa, he met an impressive sixteen year-old named Asi. While walking through the scenic countryside with Asi, Zac noticed a significant amount of garbage on the ground.

“Why is there so much pollution?” Zac asked. Asi explained that most people in that area lacked knowledge of pollution, the damage it could bring to their environment and even more importantly, what they could do about it. Zac assumed that perhaps the topic was not covered thoroughly in the local schools and made a commitment to Asi that he would return within the year and provide the knowledge they needed, to solve problems and make some fundamental changes that would reap big rewards for their future.

“At that point, zacI wasn’t completely clear on what I was committing to, but I was sure I could help,” Zac said. “The opportunity energized me and I initially thought that I’d put together some curriculum around pollution, health, and water. I figured that I could talk to school administrators in the area and set up some project based learning so the kids could apply what they were learning to the community and see real-time results from that knowledge. I figured that I would even return at some future point to celebrate the successful completion of those projects.”

Zac’s desire to help that impoverished village has since become the genesis of a for purpose non-profit business that is grabbing the attention of educators and business leaders around the globe. “When I returned from my trip, I assembled a group of well educated, forward thinking volunteers that wanted to help me keep my commitment to Asi.”

Zac and his team worked hard to develop a three week curriculum with an emphasis on solutions-based thinking in seven core areas called the Smart Roots 7:

  • People
  • Health
  • Water
  • Food
  • Energy
  • Pollution
  • Climate

His team concluded that kids need to learn how to collaborate in a project environment, and use some of the problem solving techniques within Lean Six Sigma to help define and solve problems in these areas.

“Even as we were working through the details, we were getting the sense that we had the foundation of something pretty big. Our program would add relevancy to learning by focusing on real world problems that these kids could help to solve through project based application, in their local community. It also provides them some real world experience using concepts and techniques that future employers will expect them to use. It’s a win-win.”

Wanting to pilot the program before taking it back to Africa, Zac reached out to his friend George Helfenstine, who was teaching 7th grade science in an American school. They piloted the program in October of 2014 and the results were so significant that George told Zac that he wanted to be a part of SmartRoots Global in whatever way that could happen. “The SmartRoots program has changed the way my students see the world around them and the way they view themselves. They now see themselves as part of the solution.”

The Chief Operating Officer at Wayside Schools in Austin, Texas, Teresa Elliott, agrees. “The constraints of increased science standards combined with decreased school funding necessitate an innovative approach to education. SmartRoots Global brings a value proposition to the table; project-based learning that creates the desire for scientific knowledge and simultaneously allows students to address problems in their communities, creating problem-solving citizens. Our world cares about children being able to pass a different test – we need responsible civic leaders. Our students must be compelled to know that as a member of their community, they have a responsibility to work with others to keep it functioning and to make it better. SRG’s programming helps them learn how.”

The need for this type of learning is much bigger than Zac ever imagined. “I had no idea that a conversation in Africa about pollution, and my commitment to help, would uncover such a worldwide need in the area of education. It has completely changed my career path.” With a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Journalism, Zac had planned to attend Law School but those plans are now on hold as he builds up the “For Purpose Company” he hopes will play a significant role in developing the next generation of project leaders and problem solvers. As for his promise to Asi, be sure attend Zac’s International Project Management Day presentation, “Sustainability Through Project-Based Education,” to see how the SmartRoots Approach to learning is transforming education around the world.

For more information on SmartRoots Global or to join the movement, please go to www.smartrootsglobal.com.