My accidental PBL

I'm 37 years old, and I have never tried to make a casserole. 

Correction: I'm 37 years old, and before a couple hours ago, I had never tried to make a casserole. I'll let you know by the end of this post how it turns out, and whether or not I can then claim to have made a casserole. In the meantime, I'll share what I'm calling my accidental PBL experience.

My wife and I belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture) which I refer to as our "farm subscription." Being summer, every other Tuesday we get a box chock full of veggies we then have to figure out how to store, prepare, and eat. It's our way of supporting local food while at the same time getting outside of our culinary comfort zones (and eating a ton of healthy vegetables).

So, dinner time rolls around this Thursday night and while staring at a full fridge (for which I'm thankful), I see a half-used jar of pasta sauce and decide right then and there to make a baked-pasta casserole. It seems like a good way to experiment and make some space in the kitchen.

I quickly look up on Google some directions for what to do with pasta before baking with it, but there are no recipes I can find that use the random ingredients I have, so I just jump in with how I think one would make a baked pasta casserole. Perhaps it's because I listened to the two latest Edu All-Stars podcasts* while working around the house today. Whatever the reason, I think it was an ill-advised course of action. I have a really bad feeling that it's not going to turn out to be something I want to eat, or even something that it's possible to eat...

This looks absolutely amazing, and nothing at all like what I made. Courtesy of Flickr user  notahipster  

This looks absolutely amazing, and nothing at all like what I made. Courtesy of Flickr user notahipster 

Anyway, despite the imminent future of cereal for dinner, I'm really excited about this experience! I just realized that I've ventured into project-based learning while merely trying to feed myself tonight. This is the "real-world" learning experience we want for our students! Seriously, I'm stoked - writing-about-it-while-waiting-for-it-to-finish-cooking stoked. I have decided to proceed through tonight's cooking as a form of some meta-science, both experiencing and recording it.

So far, here's some of what I've learned, in no particular order:

  • the baking dish I chose was way too small for the ingredients I prepared
  • I should check to make sure we have good layering pasta before beginning to chop veggies
  • after cooking the pasta, don't let it sit in the colander while chopping the rest of the veggies or else it will be one giant pasta piece by the time you get to the layering stage
  • my combo microwave-convection oven set at 350° really has a hard time getting the internal temperature of casseroles up to the food safety recommendation of 165°
  • setting it to 400° alleviates this problem
  • it's a good idea to pre-cook the harder veggies so that they don't come out basically still raw after 30 mins of cooking
  • 30 minutes of cooking is far too long to bake small chunks of tuna
  • double-check how much sauce you have before you start the hour+ long process of making a casserole
  • casseroles take a long time to prep and bake
    • related: don't decide to make a casserole when it's already 2 hours past your usual dinner time

And not just content-related learning either - check out this self-reflection and metacognition:

  • I'm good at managing multiple tasks so long as they are all on the same level of abstraction - e.g. I can prepare the individual ingredients - chopping, washing, boiling - all at once but I'm liable to lose sight of the overall big picture goal (making sure the dish is big enough, remembering to add seasonings...)
  • I'm stubborn enough to commit to eating something I spent hours of my time on, even if it's most likely going to be fairly unappetizing
  •  Why am I so obsessed with cleaning things immediately after I use them? (sometimes learning takes the form of new questions, right?)

Of course that's not all, but I wanted to highlight the fact that there is oodles of learning in every experience, if our minds are tuned to it. It is not hard for me to imagine what a skilled educator could do in the role of guide to help their students recognize that learning and learn to focus their personal experiences (i.e. "projects") on certain desired learning outcomes and content. Honestly, it could only take a nudge here and there - a purposeful, skilled, and empathetic nudge, but a nudge all the same.

Content goals would not be the only learning going on in such an environment, either! My mind gets overloaded when I think of the sheer amount of serendipitous tangential or collateral learning that would accompany the course objectives and benefit a healthy, well-rounded student. The traditional core curriculum-focused classroom can't even come close.

Though I'm not too pleased about potentially ruining a bunch of food, I'm jazzed about the process of creativity, problem solving, and solution testing that I just went through. This is exactly the self-directed, serendipitous, directly applied learning I want for my students, and I just happened into it. So very cool. 

Upon reflection, I only had this opportunity tonight because I let go of control, and did not follow a recipe or use ingredients I'm familiar with. Getting comfortable with less control than we're used to is a common refrain of proponents of PBL/maker education, and I totally see their point.

...a little while later...

I know you're all dying to know how dinner turned out. The experiment actually wasn't half bad. I wouldn't probably serve it to friends, but I consider it a success. I consider it a casserole.

* If you aren't a listener of this fine podcast from Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd) and Chris Kesler (@iamkesler), stop what you're doing right now and go give it a listen and/or subscribe. I recommend the last two episodes for those interested specifically in PBL & #makered, but I find every episode terrifically inspiring.