Project Based Learning & science – a match made in heaven?

This is the 7th post in my project based learning (PBL) series.  See the rest here: Project Based Learning.

Many teachers have asked me, “how do you do PBL in science class?  I mean I can see how to do it in English or social studies; but, science?  It just seems like a tough fit!”

I couldn’t disagree more!

Science is not a bunch of facts to memorize.  It is not a glorified vocabulary class.  Science is not all labs and data and analysis.

Science is a way of looking at the world.

Science is life.

A student testing water quality as part of a project

A student testing water quality as part of a project

PBL and  science are a perfect fit!  There is so much room for genuine inquiry in well-designed PBL tasks.  Students get to wrestle with complex, messy, real-world problems.  We  read together, we write together, we discuss and debate.  Students design and carry out long-term experiments to answer their questions.  They present the results to audiences that have included parents, peers, teachers, administrators, scientists, professors, graduate students, and younger students.

PBL helps students to learn to make conclusions or form opinions based on evidence.  They learn to criticize each other respectfully and to challenge the quality of the evidence their peers use to support arguments.  They learn to evaluate the validity of sources and data.  They learn to use data to inform decisions.

PBL allows students to learn to collaborate and communicate.  They learn to evaluate themselves and their peers.  Students learn to reflect, both in the classroom and while out in nature.

PBL gives students the opportunity to attack the big problems affecting our world today: climate change, overpopulation, disease & pandemics.  Students can learn to take an informed stance on controversial topics like stem cell research, genetically modified organisms, genetic discrimination, and dam removal.  They can also learn to use their ingenuity to create innovative solutions to a problem.

PBL leaves lots of room for students to ask really deep questions and find their own answers to those questions.  It allows students to be creative.  PBL can be a vehicle to facilitate integration with other content areas.

My 9th grade students experience all of their projects as integrated between biology, English and social studies.  They see the content from a variety of angles and perspectives and get to interact with it through a range of modalities.  My students get to synthesize this learning into rigorous products that they are proud to share with an audience.

Could I facilitate all of this without project-based learning.  Sure; but it would be much more difficult.  Project-based learning has made me a better teacher.

Why not give it a try?  What have you got to lose?

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Part 6How to do inquiry PBL

How to do inquiry Project-Based Learning (PBL Series Part 6)

This is probably the hardest aspect of PBL to describe.  How to explain how to do something that is inquiry?  How to describe something that, by nature, requires student involvement.  The key is the structures.

Honestly, this is very much a work in progress for me.  I’m learning how to do this as I go.  Call me a mad scientist; call it action research; call it whatever you want.  I learn by [informed] trial, error and reflection.  I want my students to learn that way too.

What structures, then, can one establish to support inquiry within project-based learning?

The hook

hookThis is where you get them.  Without a good hook, students will not want to inquire within the realm of the project that you have planned for them.  Great hooks can come from a multitude of places.  Pictures, video clips, artifacts, primary source documents, discrepant event demonstrations, play with a purpose activities, and the like can all make great hooks.  Use the hook to get them asking questions early and often.  Honor their questions and compile them into a class anchor chart.  Keep it present constantly.  Most importantly – resist the urge to answer their questions.  Get off the stage!

The driving question

You have 2 basic options here – teacher created or student created.  Of course, there are infinite variations from this theme.  Your firstquestionmark project should probably have a teacher created driving question.  This question recieves its moniker from the concept that it drives the entire project.  Thus, the driving question must follow a few key rules:

  1. Must not be a yes/ no question
  2. Must be worth answering and engaging to students
  3. Should have broad relevance across field of study, content areas, and walks of life
  4. Should address a big idea in your content area

Building Background Knowledge

Give students enough knowledge to inquire productively.  Give them general topical information, main ideas, representative case studies, segments of text, and more in order to build up some basic understanding of the topic.  Many basic knowledge-type questions will be answered here.  Let them use their favorite search engine or Wikipedia to knock off a few more of the basic fact questions.  There should be enough common experiences here to create a solid foundational understanding of the general topic.

Nurture student questions

Give students ample opportunity to brainstorm questions, to share them, to hone them and to investigate them.  Help them to delineate rich, complex questions from simple “Google” questions.  Nurture curiosity by allowing bunny trails do blossom into full blown discussions.  Keep a running anchor chart of student questions and encourage them to select one (or more) that they will investigate as a guiding question under the driving question.

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Part 5 - Why PBL is good for students

Question mark photo cc licensed courtesy of Alexander Drachmann‘s Flickr photostream
Fish hook photo cc licensed courtesy of Lenore Edman‘s Flickr photostream

Why Project Based Learning is good for students (PBL Series Part 5)

Not only is the teacher’s life unique in the PBL classroom; students have a dramatically different experience in this model too.  They may whine and complain at times, especially when a project is nearing completion, but it is really good for them.  Here’s a few reason’s why:

Long-term focus

Many of my students can’t think ahead past next period.  Go read Ruby Payne if you don’t know why kids of poverty aren’t big on planning and organization.  Planning ahead is a skill that can be learned but expect growing pains along the way.  The long term focus of PBL helps students to learn goal setting, self assessment, creating a plan, monitoring progress, and time management.  How are kids to be expected to learn these skills if they are never taught them?

Embedded Skills

Many skills can be embedded within the goals of a project.  Rather than learning these skills in isolation or by doing trumped up projects, the kids learn the skills while learning important content.  This includes 21st Century (ooo-weee-ooo!) skills like research, vetting and citing sources, product creation.  It also includes timeless skills such as inquiry and reading/ writing skills.

Differentiation

Opportunities for differentiation are limitless.  Projects can be differentiated for content, process and product.  I was honestly never consistently good at differentiation until I started doing PBL.  Now I’ve constantly got kids all over the room working on different things (or similar things in totally different ways).  Hectic, yes, but it’s a blast.  I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Assessment for Learning

Assessment should be based around authentic products for a real-world audience.  Grades are not important in this type of task because the push is to present a quality product, not on “getting a grade.”  Because the teacher is not too busy “teaching,” they have time to mentor students, give personal feedback, have conversations about learning, and gather evidence about students that goes far beyond letters and numbers.  Now that’s good assessment!

Next post in the PBL Series – How to do inquiry-based PBL

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

The teacher’s role in PBL (PBL Series Part 4)

The teacher’s role in an Project Based Learning (PBL) classroom is unique.  I’m still figuring it out – and probably will be for years to come.  That being said, I’m confident about a few things the teacher must do to make PBL click on all cylinders.

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

the teacher has to juggle many hats in the PBL classroom

Here are 10 things a teacher should do to facilitate PBL effectively:

  1. Find a hook and deliver it well.  Grab the students’ imaginations and leave them with lots of questions, wanting to learn more.
  2. Set an engaging, thought provoking driving question but leave plenty of room for inquiry.  If you set the driving question, let the students decide how they will answer it.  Better still, let the students generate the driving question.
  3. Gather materials that the students can’t get for themselves.  Nothing kills inquiry quicker than a curious kid not having any way to answer their questions.  This include resources
  4. Serve as a mentor for individual students and small groups.  Help them figure out how to complete their project.  Help them to see themselves.
  5. Facilitate whole class discussions.  When students are working in small groups or pairs for an extended period of time, there must be whole class activities as well.  This maintains the learning community of the group.  Use discussion protocols like socratic seminars, rotating fishbowls and the like to get eveyone involved.
  6. Provide sufficient structure and support so that students don’t get stuck.  Help them to plan, monitor progress, and assess their results.  Keep the students focused on the big picture.  Remind them often of the driving question and revisit milestone dates and final product dates daily.
  7. Help students to determine success criteria for each project.  Facilitate analysis of various models that will help them to see what an end product might look like.  If you feel a rubric is needed, have them create it.
  8. Provide descriptive feedback.  Don’t evaluate their work in progress but give them information to help them see how to move forward.  Don’t let them bog down for too long.
  9. Recruit an audience.  Students should be presenting their learning to an audience outside of the classroom.  Invite parents, community members, other staff members, district administrators, local university staff and students, local scientists, local business people  – anyone who may have an interest in what you are doing.
  10. Allow time for reflection, for students and for yourself.  Use that reflection to improve the next project for students and yourself.  Listen to the students very carefully and learn from them.
Photo of mathematician Ronald Graham juggling used under cc licence from the Wikimedia commons

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

What Project Based Learning is and what it isn’t (PBL Series Part 3)

Project based learning (PBL) is a unique instructional style that is not for everyone.  To do PBL justice, you have to focus your entire class around this model – and do repeated cycles of it.  One shot, or even once in a while, will probably not fit the culture of your classroom.  This will just make for an awkward experience for all.

So, what is PBL?

PBL is:

  • All learning in the class directed toward a rigorous project for an authentic audience (or at least for one outside the classroom)
  • Students working on the project throughout the project “unit” not just at the end
  • Learning centered around answering messy, complex questions without any one right answer (you can’t Google it)
  • An organic process wherein teachers and students work together towards a common goal
  • The teacher acting as a facilitator or mentor, not as the center of the universe
  • Focused on learning over doing

PBL isn’t:

  • Scripted lessons
  • Units with every day planned in detail from beginning to end
  • Assigning students projects the way you’ve always done
  • Research papers or PowerPoints (although they could be part of a PBL experience)
  • Teaching from a textbook and then assigning a project at the end of the unit or chapter
  • Doing “fun” projects that have little rigor to them
  • Extra projects that students do at home on their own time
  • Worksheets, textbooks, multiple choice tests, lectures

I hope you can see that to do Project Based Learning right, the teacher has to be willing to completely transform the classroom.

Next post in the PBL Series – The teacher’s role in the PBL classroom

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Why my instructional approach didn’t work (PBL Series Part 2)

You may remember, when we last left our hero, he’d enjoyed a subtle epiphany.  It went something like this, “I plan all this stuff and throw it at the kids.  They don’t think it’s as cool as I do.  Now what?”

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

kids need real choice, not just between the lesser of 2 evils

There were 3 main problems with my old approach:

  1. Not enough room for student choice. I planned all of the lessons, labs and activities.  I directed the content, the process, and the product.  They were along for the ride.
  2. The connections that held the content together were all mine. It felt disjointed to them because I didn’t make the connections explicit, in hopes that they would discover them.  Too bad they couldn’t see into my scattered mind…
  3. Not enough room for inquiry. I was answering questions that they didn’t even ask.   I was answering my questions, not theirs.

So, having been properly epiphanized, I had to convert to a new pedagogical religion.  Enter project based learning (PBL).

This truly was less a sea change in my practice than a slight but critical shift.  All instruction must be about the end goal, aka “the project.”  The project, which is really about answering “the driving question.”  Duh duh DUH!

When it all boils down to it, I realized that I needed to plan less stuff for the kids to do and give them more time along the way to create a project.  I had to give them more choice about the project, the questions they were trying to answer and how they would answer them.

Next post – What PBL is and what it isn’t

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Photo cc license by degreeszero on Flickr

A subtle epiphany – over-planning kills engagement (PBL Series Part 1)

Epiphanies don’t always come as a lightning bolt; shattering your world with sound and fury.  Instead, they subtly infiltrate your consciousness.

One day, an idea quietly glides down, alights on your shoulder, and whispers in your ear.  You look up and say, “Why didn’t I realize this before?”

almost got it... next time around...

almost got it... next time around...

I’ve been chasing my tail for years, doing thematic units culminating in “real world” projects.  The themes were relevant and rigorous and the projects often had an authentic audience.  Many kids loved it.  Yet, somehow, it never quite felt right.

I’d begin an investigation with some sort of end in mind and throw activities, labs, multimedia, mini-lessons, mini-projects, etc. at my students.  At the end, I’d say, “now you have to do Project X to show me that you learned all the stuff we did the last 6 weeks.”

Kids would look at me like there were lobsters crawling out of my ears.

The problem was that it was my project, not theirs!

Sure, there were successes, but now I realize that the best units were those that I hadn’t really planned.  When I had the guts (or the lunacy) to bring the students in on the process organic, collaborative projects were born.

Exhibit A - Biodiesel Investigation, 2007.  I introduced my students to biodiesel and said, “what should we do with this knowledge?” They suggested we present a plan for using biodiesel in our buses to the school board.  We did, and the students were phenomenal.

Exhibit B - In 2008 and 2009, I reprised the biodiesel project without student input and the kids struggled.  Their hearts clearly weren’t in it.

This is a microcosm of my early teaching years.  Then I had my subtle epiphany: the more detailed and scripted the unit plan, the less engaging the unit.

My next post - Why  this approach didn’t work

Photo cc license by timekin via flickr