Project-based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) helps students of all levels to practice their individual creativity, and to develop the communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills they will need in a knowledge-based, highly technological society. PBL enables students to learn core content while completing highly engaging projects. NapaLearns believes project-based learning is the best preparation for college and today’s careers.

What Is Project-based Learning?

The guiding principle behind PBL, as pioneered in Napa’s New Technology High School in 1996, is learning by doing. Unlike traditional classrooms, where students sit in rows and memorize the content delivered by the teacher, in technology-enhanced PBL classrooms teams of students work collaboratively on question-driven projects, tackling long-term challenges involving real-life problems. NapaLearns partners with the school districts and the New Tech Network to provide professional development coaching and a learning management program called ECHO to support PBL in schools.

“PBL ignites my students’ desire to learn every day!”

– Cathy Shilacci, Silverado MS teacher

The project work encourages the “Four C’s”– critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity as well as student responsibility. In the process, students acquire and apply new knowledge in contexts relevant to them. Teachers in PBL classrooms work as facilitators, guiding students by framing worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, and coaching the development of knowledge. They help students build teamwork skills, while carefully assessing what students have learned using rubrics. Napa County district leaders believe this is the best learning approach for students to become proficient on the California State Standards (CSS).


Mike Mansuy, Project Director for Napa’s NexTech Initiative discusses his commitment to PBL when he was the principal of Silverado Middle School.

Cathy Shillaci talks about the challenges and rewards of transforming to tech-infused PBL and a culture of student responsibility, collaboration, and engagement.

A Snapshot of 2015 Results for 10 Napa NexTech Schools

  • All students in the PBL schools scored 80% or higher on School Wide Learning Outcomes: Knowledge and thinking, collaboration, written and oral communication, and agency
  • With a 95% graduation rate, 80% of high school students enrolled in postsecondary programs
  • 81% of students reported increased engagement and a positive culture in their classrooms
  • 73% of teachers strongly believe that PBL has a positive impact on their classroom culture and are committed to continuing this approach to learning

Click here learn more about PBL.


Teachers Christie and Tom Wolf and New Tech High students examine vines as part of a viticulture project. To help students get a ‘real world’ experience, Gamble Vineyards gave the students a field day in their vineyard with local viticulture experts. Here the students are determining which varietal of grape would be best suited for a specially assigned vineyard location. Teams of students then wrote a “Site Analysis Report” with their conclusions, which they presented to winery executives, who chose the most convincing report.

How NapaLearns Supports Project-based Learning

We have learned that true public school transformation does not happen on a class-by-class or school-by-school basis. It works best along a K-12 “vertical” system of feeder schools so that a child proceeds in one consistent flow from preschool through high school in classrooms designed for project-based learning, with trained teachers and 1:1 devices.

PBL requires a systems approach to change – entire school cultures, policies, and practices need to support the new model of educational practice. This is extremely hard work, especially for teachers who are used to traditional lecture-based learning. For this reason and with NapaLearns funding, districts partner with the New Tech Network and the Buck Institute for Education who provide professional development, coaching, and online tools for learning management.

Project-based Learning Expansion

NapaLearns supports tech-infused PBL transformation of schools throughout the five Napa districts and County Office of Education. Beginning in 2012, NapaLearns has supported the transformation of 13 K-12 schools in four vertical feeder systems, reaching over 7,000 students and over 350 teachers. In 2015-2016, Napa High School will begin its transformation to PBL in 9th and 10th grades. Through our unique public-private partnership, NapaLearns supports the largest countywide PBL  educational transformation in the country!

Over the next 10 years, we will be continually seeding the transformation of our public schools, ultimately reaching all 47 schools, 1,000 teachers, and 21,800 students in the county!