I argue that effective science and STEM programs require Project-Based Learning (PBL). Of course, that’s my opinion about effective education in general. As education leaders rethink science programs and consider building STEM programs, the process should free you from the prison of bare content coverage (meaning devoid of a context, or content for content’s sake). In the NRC Science Framework or NGSS, for example, the learning structure emphasizes connecting content to science and engineering practices and to big ideas in science (three-dimensional learning). Important content becomes a tool for building the skills to understand the world and solve problems, not an end in itself. PBL is a framework for taking science content, practice and understandings and applying them to meaningful community problems that will meaningfully engage students. Combining these ideas is educational matrimonial bliss.
Back when I worked at CESA 2, I conducted a workshop on PBL (with science, math and literacy connections). The slides are here. Here are a few thoughts on understanding and implementing PBL:
First, you really need to define it - What is PBL?
As a school, district, or individual, if you’re working to implement PBL, you need a consistent, definition. There are a lot of names for PBL, which makes things confusing. I personally don’t think it really matters what you call it (problem, project, challenge, inquiry, ...); it just matter what you do. I like this list of questions to assess whether it’s just another project or PBL.
Some will need justification - Why do PBL?
Because students love it! That’s really all the justification anyone should need, but students love a lot of things that won’t move their education forward, so it’s clearly not enough. Research suggests that PBL increases long-term retention, better engages students and teachers, and develops critical thinking skills. I saw these effects in my classes.
So, how do I implement it?
I created a template to structure the steps in setting up a PBL unit (I also have a template that describes each of the sections). The steps are…
1) First, you lay the groundwork. Determining the phenomenon/community issue you’re going to explore becomes part of a cyclical process of determining your understandings and essential questions, along with what students will know and be able to do. With a lens of three-dimensional learning, the content and skills will be intertwined and inseparable.
2) In considering the skills and content knowledge that students will gain, projects can clearly connect to math, literacy and science (along with engineering and technology). In particular, the skills espoused in each have vast overlaps. PBL should include all disciplines because work that we do in life connects all of the disciplines. A new town retention pond has to be mathematically and scientifically sound, it has to be written up and communicated well, it needs to meet codes and regulations, and it often has to be aesthetically pleasing within a park setting. In elementary schools integrated units are frequently going away as set curriculum programs require certain amounts of time in isolated disciplines. That will have to change in order to experience the benefits of PBL.
3) At some point in my workshops on PBL (and science generally), I like to have the group go on a walk through the school and/or neighborhood. If you look carefully, there are potential projects all around the school: recycling, prairies, gardens, local streams or retention ponds, playgrounds, community centers, graffiti, alternative energy, ecosystems, seasonal changes, traffic flow, sports and safety, politics, drones, diabetes and healthy eating, constitutional rights, etc., etc. Many online sites also have ideas, such as this database.
4) Assessing PBL requires moving beyond typical paper/pencil tests. With content and skills inextricably linked, assessments will likewise need to look at the connection of student ability and understanding. Can they find the density of multiple chemicals to help describe which ones would be best suited for cleaning an oil spill? I also like the idea of students involved in the goal setting and assessment. Some self and peer assessment examples can be found here, here, and here, performance assessment ideas here, rubric ideas here and here, and possible digital portfolios here. I have really liked having experts come in to be part of the assessment process as well—such as listening to presentations, and judging science or cultural fairs. Experts could really be helpful in project design and research as well. UW-Madison, as an example, has an experts database, but local communities typically have a wide variety of untapped expert resources.
5) To meet the needs of varying students and better engage them, having some elements of choice often helps. Choices could include their partners, what the product looks like, how they structure their time, the subject or topic studied, their individual goals, how they’re assessed, or dates for check-ins. Acknowledging that some groups of students have special needs, these case studies have a lot of great ideas.
6) Managing the process can often be the biggest challenge of PBL. How do you ensure students actually finish and that they all participate? A clear timeline or calendar for the teacher and the students is an essential first step. To ensure participation, I also really like the idea of a team contract to hold students accountable. Student collaboration and participation can also be facilitated with tools like Google docs, edmodo, wikispaces, etc., which also allow for observing which students are contributing.
7) Two continual problems should be addressed explicitly within the project. First, students need specific help in finding reliable sources (ideas here and here). Avoiding plagiarism must also be taught, discussed and penalized severely. Even in my wife’s college courses, receiving zeroes for plagiarized work and referrals to academic authorities surprised students.8) Building on the assessment piece, both teachers and students should have some metacognitive time to reflect on their learning. I really like this list of reflection questions for students from Edutopia.
Notably, I have received many of these resources from Edutopia and the Buck Institute for Education.
Please, let me know of any questions or comments you have on these ideas!