If project-based learning is done well, it can increase test scores by up to 40 percent. If implemented poorly, however, test scores can drop by as much as 17 percent, research has found.

At the newest high school in Plano, Texas, a lesson on Hurricane Katrina could look a lot like this: Students would study the science of weather patterns, review the historical impact of the 2005 natural disaster, and read personal stories from those affected. Then, in teams, they would research and develop a plan for federal authorities on how to respond to a similar act of nature.

“This is a very untraditional way of teaching and learning, so … it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” principal Renee Godi said.

Instruction focused on a problem-solving team approach rather than subject-by-subject homework assignments will drive the new Project Based Learning Academy set to open in 2013. Such project-based learning methods are quickly taking root in North Texas and around the country as more districts work to incorporate such instruction styles at local campuses.

In 2007, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district opened the Math, Engineering, Technology, and Science Academy on the R.L. Turner High School campus built on that concept. Coppell opened its project-based learning school, New Tech High, the following year. Then Dallas opened its repurposed Maceo Smith New Tech High School last year with a project-based learning model.

Such learning helps students develop a deeper level of critical thinking and cognitive skills, said Mansoureh Tehrani, director of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch program.

A few years ago at METSA, for example, students in a geometry class researched demographics and traffic patterns to develop options for DART’s Green Line rail expansion that they then presented them to local transportation officials.