Project based learning is one of the buzzwords that you see on Pinterest and Facebook all the time, but what does it mean and should you be using it?
There are different approaches to project-based learning in science, but the most straightforward when just getting started with your kids is a guided approach and focus on a topic that you need/want to teach anyway.
Many of us will wait to do a PBL late in the school year after all the evaluations are done, but it can be incorporated into the rest of your curriculum.
Let’s talk about what project-based learning is not:
- It’s not a STEM challenge that never ends.
- It is not a science fair project that Mom or Dad take over
- Not a book report or poster
- It’s not boring.
The picture above is one of my favorite project based learning activities we’ve ever done, a mock conference.
According to Edutopica.com “PBL doesn’t ask you to replace your content. It asks that you create a vehicle in which to communicate your content.” -https://www.edutopia.org/blog/what-heck-project-based-learning-heather-wolpert-gawron
A PBL has several key components according to BIE:
- Challenging Problem or Question
- Sustained Inquiry
- Student Voice & Choice
- Critique & Revision
- Public Product
You can find out more reasons why for these elements here.
Let’s apply these components to a middle school science topic. The example portion is in green below.
Working through a project-based learning (in science) example
For instance, if the learning objective is to get kids to evaluate possible solutions to ecosystem threats that impact biodiversity or ecosystem services, you might create a project rather than try to teach this concept in a more traditional way. Real world problem solving is a large component of NGSS and project-based learning fits perfectly with these new science standards.
Create a question:
The first step would be to create the question. This question or problem will be the driving force for the entire project. This part can be part of the research for the project as a whole, but for middle schoolers, I think it is a great idea to give some topics at least and then have kids vote and help guide them through the question generation process.
In this example, you might try something specific like, “How do we protect the wolf population in the western part of the United States without altering the balance of their ecosystem?” or “Why is protecting keystone species, like African elephants, essential to the health of an ecosystem?”. This question is just the starting point.
When developing this question, BIE suggests that you focus on real-world problems that kids can work towards solving, but cautions against problems that might be too intimidating (which I feel like the NGSS does at times). I think this is where scaffolding is key as you begin to introduce your students to PBL.
Students begin researching information. Rather than a worksheet that has a single right or wrong answer, students are encouraged to follow the rabbit trails and have their research become a cycle of question-research-answer/deeper questions- research. This means that the research portion takes time.
In our example, students might begin by looking up what happened to the wolf population in the American West. This will lead to lots of deeper questions about keystone species, human and wildlife interaction, the role ecosystems play in human life, etc.
This is a change I bring up constantly which is a shift from the memorization of facts to a mode of thinking focused on real-world problems. Authenticity comes in many forms. They all result in students being more motivated and engaged – ultimately resulting in learning more about the role of science in our communities. The focus has shifted from a little about everything to a deeper understanding of the major areas of science.
Keystone species are critical for the health of an ecosystem and are often threatened as a direct result of human interaction. In our example, students focus on how to balance the needs of an ecosystem with its human inhabitants (which can often have opposing needs). Students begin to see that while politicians and newspapers might like to make these decisions simple, the problem solving is complex and requires a thorough grasp of the problems (and underlying problems) at hand.
Ownership & Reflection
Student ownership of PBL projects is essential to their success. I suggest scaffolding more in middle school with a move to more ownership as kids mature. You will find that with more choice there will be an increase in excitement and engagement in the project itself – which should lead to higher quality work.
Students voting on the question is a great way to begin to establish a routine. Having individual conferences with kids during the project is a great way to foster ownership, reflection, and authenticity. Rubrics are another great reflective teaching tools.
Students that spend time reflecting on their work develop skills (and meaning of those skills) as well as grow in their ability to participate effectively in these types of learning situations.
Critique & Review
Giving constructive criticism is a muscle that has to develop. Throughout the PBL process encourage students to critique their own work through a reflective process and offer constructive critique of your own. Likewise, teaching students to give constructive criticism is an important skill in the classroom and the workforce. The steps leading up to this point support this development: rubrics, conferences, class discussions, sharing work and ideas all help to foster an environment where everyone is working together and wanting to see the best work from everyone.
In our example, students might share their progress in small groups and have other students ask questions. This will help the student author see holes in their research or their communication. This requires teacher oversight so that students can learn to give and receive these critiques.
This is the cornerstone of PBL. Creating a public product has many reasons. The result is that students have created a meaningful answer to a question or challenge that they want to share. As students engage with others, they deepen the connection to the project and to science and our communities.
Students create a public product that will help educate others. These projects can be amazing outreach. Students working on keystone species projects may be contacting local wildlife officers about ideas to protect the keystone species where they live.
PBL is powerful
Project-based learning is a powerful tool that teaches kids the importance of their own informed decision making to their communities.