How do you decide where the best place is to build an apartment building?

That is the question that fifth grade students in Pam Behan’s class at Medina Elementary wrestled with in a recent science unit called The Skokomish River Challenge.

The unit utilizes problem-based learning where students are given a real-world problem to solve through application of the unit content.

“We actually get to figure it out,” said fifth grader Madeline Locke. “We get to work as a group, learn about science, and we get to debate each other and ask questions.”

In the Skokomish River Challenge students learned about geological and human factors that could impact development, as well as how to measure and analyze them.

Instead of just focusing on theory, students are challenged to ask, “How do your investigation results play out in real life?”


For the unit project, students formed teams and were presented with a scenario in which they had to select the best of three sites on which to build an affordable housing apartment building. Students conducted experiments to determine the impact of factors like slope and vegetation on erosion, evaluated flood risk, proximity of grocery stores and other services, and weighed the concerns and opinions of stakeholders.

Fifth grader Peter Zhou said that his favorite part of the project was learning about erosion and experimenting with different mitigation techniques.

“We get to figure out how to solve it,” Zhou said.

To conclude the scenario, students went public and presented their wonderings and research findings in support of one of the sites to visiting family members who played the role of government officials during a class forum. Each team’s presentation was followed by a Q&A with the officials and their classmates.

“They aren’t presenting to entertain, they are presenting for the sake of persuading through evidence and through their work, and answering questions posed to them,” Behan explained.

Behan said that a key part of the unit is that students are able to support their claims with evidence and reasoning. Additionally, she said, students are becoming well versed in presenting their ideas to varying audiences.

“For me, the most important outcome is that they can understand that they can go up and make a presentation and feel empowered to do that,” Behan said. “That they feel comfortable in front of peers and comfortable questioning other people’s evidence.”

After the forum students reviewed feedback from the government officials and the class used that data, as well as their findings, to vote on where to build.

“There needs to be something that ties all the ideas together,” Behan said of the importance of application found in problem-based learning. “This unit is particularly powerful because the forum is such an appropriate thing to do for the end of it. The kids get really into it.”

The Bellevue School District acknowledges that we learn, work, live and gather on the Indigenous Land of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish and Snoqualmie Tribes. We thank these caretakers of this land, who have lived and continue to live here, since time immemorial.