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

I teach kids science

I teach kids.  That always comes first and foremost for me.  I don’t teach a content area – a set of knowledge and skill that someone once arbitrarily divided into seperate disciplines (probably a textbook company).

That said, I do teach 3 high school classes with traditional labels: biology, chemistry, physics. I am blessed to work in a small high school (~250 students 9-12).  This means that students can have me as many as 3 times in high school.  I love that I get to know these kids over time.  I like to believe that I have aided in their development from immature freshman (of whom I teach 100% in biology) to (relatively) mature 11 & 12 graders in physics.

I get to know students as individuals.  I get to know parents and families.  Younger siblings come through my room every year.  There are families from whom I have taught 3 of their kids in my 5 years at this school.

This arrangement also affords me the unique opportunity of knowing EXACTLY what my chemistry and physics students were taught before.  I can tailor instruction and lessons to what I know is in their prior knowledge base.  I know the strengths and weaknesses of every kid in my chemistry and physics classes like the back of my hand.

“With great power comes great responsibility” ~Peter Parker, aka Spiderman

I don’t take this responsibility lightly.  My impact on the science education of students, of entire families, in this small community is significant.  My failures (there are many) often keep me up at night.

I keep coming back, though.  I come back because I have unfinished business.  I come back because I love the small school environment.  I cherish the trust and resposibility that have been placed in me.

I love to teach kids and I think there is no better place to do that than in a small school.