For some students in Southern Indiana, project-based learning is an essential part of their school day, whether they are fixing wrecked cars at a repair shop or cooking meals for a cafe.

The News and Tribune observed classes at a few local schools — Prosser Career Education Center, Community Montessori and Renaissance Academy — where the focus is on hands-on, real-world experiences as part of their educational models. Here’s what we found:

PROSSER CAREER EDUCATION CENTER

After his truck door was damaged in a wreck about a month ago, Floyd Central High School senior Chance Voyles was able to use his vehicle as a learning opportunity.

Voyles is a student at Prosser Career Education Center in New Albany, where he is enrolled in the automotive collision repair program. So, instead of taking his 1982 Chevrolet C10 Scottsdale to be repaired elsewhere, Voyles brought it with him to class at the school’s fully-operational auto repair shop.

“I like tearing it down and putting it back together,” he said. “I like seeing what it looked like before, and then seeing it come back together. That’s one of the best parts.”

Auto repair is just one of the many hands-on learning experiences offered at Prosser, where high school students can choose from among 24 career and technical programs, everything from culinary arts to criminal justice.

Eddie Bobbitt, college and career readiness counselor at Prosser, emphasizes the school’s mission of making sure students are both “college and career ready” as they receive dual credits and industry-recognized certifications.

Work-based learning is at the core of a Prosser education, Students participate in job-shadowing, mock interviews, externships and internships. They are engaged in real-world experiences, not just sitting in a classroom listening to a PowerPoint presentation, Bobbitt said.

“When they graduate, they can not only say, I’m a high school graduate, but I have these credits, these certifications, I’ve built a house if I was in construction — the opportunities are incredible here,” he said.

Prosser’s model shows students they don’t have to attend a four-year college to be successful. They can also find success in a trade, the counselor said, and employers will actively seek Prosser students to fill jobs after graduation. And if students do pursue higher education, they already will have accumulated college credits, Bobbitt said.

Even if students decide not to pursue a particular field as a career, the practical skills taught at the school are still valuable and applicable to the students’ futures, he said.

“Think about automotive and how much money you could save personally if you work on a car,” Bobbitt pointed out. “It’s a very big deal, even if you’re not thinking about going into that for the rest of your life.”

COMMUNITY MONTESSORI

On a recent weekday morning at Community Montessori, students ages 12 to 14 were hard at work after finishing their usual business meetings.

One group of students prepped a meal of avocado toast in the kitchen to serve to staff and their fellow students, while another group typed away on their laptops as they researched, wrote and edited articles for a weekly newspaper, “The Montessori Message.”

In a wood shop, students used power tools to craft pieces ranging from cornhole sets to cutting boards. Outside, other classmates checked the progress of plants growing in their outdoor garden and greenhouse.

Community Montessori, a charter school in New Albany, recently introduced a program for its middle school-aged kids to allow them to learn about various occupations in a hands-on, collaborative model, which takes place each Wednesday morning. The students attended a job fair-style presentation, filled out applications and engaged in mock interviews for four occupation groups: the newspaper, cafe, gardening and woodworking.

While advisers took a larger role in the beginning, the students organized their businesses themselves. Each group learns to manage their budgets and operations and how to turn a profit. The money earned by the students goes back into the school and pays for the expenses of the occupation groups.

“Now, we’re at the point where teens are really running the businesses and leading the business meeting side of it, and actually doing the work themselves,” adviser Angela Barger said.

The cafe group provides a lunch service every Wednesday, when both students and staff can purchase meals. The students even use Google Forms for orders to coordinate food delivery for staff. The cafe group has been the most profitable, Barger said, and they sometimes use produce grown by the gardening group in their meals.

Student Nicholas Haug said he enjoys the freedom students are given in the newspaper group. He likes to write movie reviews and articles on new technology releases.

“It feels like we all have an individual part to play in writing articles, so it’s neat that we’re able to write about whatever we want without any barriers and boundaries to tell us we can’t do that,” he said.

With the occupations curriculum, Community Montessori aims to teach kids about self-motivation and economic independence, according to Barger.

“When we look at Montessori and the philosophy when it comes to middle school and adolescents, it’s about becoming an independent person, because they’re on the cusp of adulthood,” she said. “They’re not children really anymore, but they’re not into adulthood, so some of the things our program really, really strives for is that teaching of independence.”

RENAISSANCE ACADEMY

With guidance from the Clark County Health Department, high school students from Renaissance Academy scoured the wooded trails of Lapping Park in Clarksville on a recent field trip, searching for two types of insects: ticks and mosquitos.

The students were there for a combined environmental science and anthropology course to learn about issues related to environmental health management. Groups of students are working on their own presentations related to diseases that are borne by birds and insects, and their next step is to create short public service announcements to catch people’s attention about the topic.

Renaissance Academy, a public, tuition-free high school in the Clarksville Community School Corp., is part of the New Technology Network, which uses a project-based learning model. The recent field trip fit in with the larger project in which students have learned how to identify various mosquitos and ticks, where to find them and the diseases, such as West Nile virus and Lyme Disease, they can carry.

During the field trip, students were taught by environmental health specialists about various aspects of their jobs, which include monitoring areas for presence of ticks and mosquitos (including larvae), treating certain areas to reduce the insect population, and sending insects to the Indiana State Department of Health to check for diseases.

Students were given an interactive introduction to the health department’s role in managing the insects. They used scooping tools to look for mosquito larvae in standing water, and they dragged pieces of fabric along the edges of trails to check for ticks.

Renaissance Academy student Maura Nieto said she enjoys completing projects at Renaissance Academy, where students also make museum displays for a history class, to learn about immigration.

“I like hands-on learning, like designing posters to show to other people,” Nieto said.

Science teacher David Gardner said he is teaching kids about issues of environmental science policy on a national, state and local level, by introducing students to ways in which government agencies and community organizations address issues such as potentially disease-carrying insects.

“What do we do locally to protect our community and our environment?” he said. “Since we’re in a very odd combination of suburb and rural environments within a short drive, we have to think about as we continue to expand our urban area into suburban and rural areas, what insects and what threats are we going to potentially encounter?”

The class also includes an anthropology section on creating a culture of sustainability. Students explore what’s involved in publicly educating the community on issues related to health and the environment, as well as the cultural challenges that come with it, said social studies teacher Emma Cudahy, who is the co-teacher of the class.

Gardner said the school’s goal is to teach students how to apply academic information to the real world and to build a relationship with local leaders and organizations, such as the Clark County Health Department.

“The students are learning what businesses and local community leaders need, and the community leaders are getting the younger generation engaged in actually participating in the process within the community,” he said.