LAUNCHing Student Projects

With our International Expo approaching on May 29th right here at Northstar, our groups are preparing interactive displays on the country of their choice. The event invites families, staff, and community members to join in an evening of learning about other countries and celebrating the hard work our students have put into our “Around the World” theme for this quarter. Our final passion project of this year, and the ninth passion project since the ARCTIC Zone’s start last year, we can finally say we have landed on a project process with which we are comfortable and confident.

A common misconception about project-based learning is that teachers are expected to give up complete control in the classroom while the students just roll with a project idea how they see fit. Part of the beauty of PBL is that students do assume more ownership in their learning, however, teachers remain the classroom experts, and it is our job to provide the proper structure and sequence that allows students to move logically through the project process.

Over the past nine passion projects, we have tried several different approaches ranging from four phases to six phases, tweaking things here and there. Though tweaks will continue to be made along the way, we have now fully adopted the LAUNCH cycle as our project approach, taken from the book The Launch Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani. You might recognize these authors from another book I highlighted in a previous post entitled Empower. One might say I admire their work, on paper and off.


The LAUNCH cycle is an acronym that carries students through a sequence of phases:

Look, Listen, & Learn – This phase sparks student curiosity about a problem or idea.

Ask Tons of Questions – This is when students (as I call it) “word vomit” as many questions as they can all over their papers about the existing topic or problem.

Understand – Here is where an authentic research phase occurs to answer the questions asked in the previous phase.

Navigate Ideas – Now students brainstorm ideas and create a plan to show what they have learned in a unique way.

Create – Now they bring their ideas to life!

Highlight & Fix – Thoughtful reflection takes place to highlight what is or is not working and students spend time fixing what they know can be better.

Launch! – Here is where students showcase their products for an authentic audience.

Currently, most students are finishing up the U phase, using the questions they generated about different aspects of their country to gather information and gain some perspective. The first group to enter the N phase this quarter is a group of three seventh-grade girls. Sterling, Lydia, and Hannah are exploring the country of China.


I met with them briefly today to hear how their Navigation of ideas is going. They narrowed down their questions for the U phase into different categories so they could split the research up and each of them could take a topic of interest to them. They chose to focus closely on China’s currency, food, religion, culture, and The Great Wall of China because they said they, “wanted to cover everything.”

Their excitement is evident as they spout out ideas for how to showcase what they have each learned about their country in their final display. Each group will set up an entire classroom to represent what they learned about their country, and this group has no lack of ideas for engaging their audience. They have plans to provide “travelers” with their own yuan (Chinese money) when they enter, so they can purchase their Chinese snack of choice once inside. Tables will be set out for dining with fun facts to read about China and the playing of traditional Chinese music to set the mood. The corners of the room will host two booths, one about Chinese culture and the other Chinese religion. And hanging from the ceiling will be a replica of the Great Wall of China, on which people can possibly sign their names or read interesting facts. These are all just ideas, of course. Ideas that will change as they create, highlight, and fix. But for now, as one of the girls said, “We need to think big!”


The LAUNCH cycle has provided a smooth sequence through which students can naturally flow. It provides helpful and necessary structure while also offering students flexibility in the execution of ideas. We provide the process guide, so they can own the project.


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