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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Twenty Ideas for Engaging Projects

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

The start of the school year offers an ideal time to introduce students to project-based learning. By starting with engaging projects, you'll grab their interest while establishing a solid foundation of important skills, such as knowing how to conduct research, engage experts, and collaborate with peers. In honor of Edutopia's 20th anniversary, here are 20 project ideas to get learning off to a good start.

1. Flat Stanley Refresh: Flat Stanley literacy projects are perennial favorites for inspiring students to communicate and connect, often across great distances. Now Flat Stanley has his own apps for iPhone and iPad, along with new online resources. Project founder Dale Hubert is recently retired from the classroom, but he's still generating fresh ideas to bring learning alive in the "flatlands."

2. PBL is No Accident: In West Virginia, project-based learning has been adopted as a statewide strategy for improving teaching and learning. Teachers don't have to look far to find good project ideas. In this CNN story about the state's educational approach, read about a project that grew out of a fender-bender in a school parking lot. When students were asked to come up with a better design for the lot, they applied their understanding of geometry, civics, law, engineering, and public speaking. Find more good ideas in West Virginia's Teach21 project library.

3. Defy Gravity: Give your students a chance to investigate what happens near zero gravity by challenging them to design an experiment for NASA to conduct at its 2.2 second drop tower in Brookpark, Ohio. Separate NASA programs are offered for middle school and high school. Or, propose a project that may land you a seat on the ultimate roller coaster (aka: the "vomit comet"), NASA aircraft that produces periods of micro and hyper gravity ranging from 0 to 2 g's. Proposal deadline is Sept. 21, and flight week takes place in February 2012.

4. Connect Across Disciplines: When students design and build kinetic sculptures, they expand their understanding of art, history, engineering, language arts, and technology. Get some interdisciplinary project insights from the Edutopia video, Kinetic Conundrum. Click on the accompanying links for more tips about how you can do it, too.

5. Honor Home Languages: English language learners can feel pressured to master English fast, with class time spent correcting errors instead of using language in meaningful ways. Digital IS, a site published by the National Writing Project, shares plans for three projects that take time to honor students' home languages and cultures, engaging them in critical thinking, collaboration, and use of digital tools. Anne Herrington and Charlie Moran curate the project collection, "English Language Learners, Digital Tools, and Authentic Audiences."

6. Rethink Lunch: Make lunch into a learning opportunity with a project that gets students thinking more critically about their mid-day meal. Center for Ecoliteracy offers materials to help you start, including informative including informative essays and downloadable planning guides. Get more ideas from this video about a middle-school nutrition project, "A Healthy School Lunch."

7. Take a Learning Expedition: Expeditionary Learning schools take students on authentic learning expeditions, often in neighborhoods close to home. Check out the gallery for project ideas about everything from the tools people use in their work to

8. Find a Pal: If PBL is new to you, consider joining an existing project. You'll benefit from a veteran colleague's insights, and your students will get a chance to collaborate with classmates from other communities or even other countries. Get connected at ePals, a global learning community for educators from more than 200 countries.

9. Get Minds Inquiring: What's under foot? What are things made of? Science projects that emphasize inquiry help students make sense of their world and build a solid foundation for future understanding. The Inquiry Project supports teachers in third to fifth grades as they guide students in hands-on investigations about matter. Students develop the habits of scientists as they make observations, offer predictions, and gather evidence. Companion videos show how scientists use the same methods to explore the world. Connect inquiry activities to longer-term projects, such as creating a classroom museum that showcases students' investigations.

10. Learn through Service: When cases of the West Nile virus were reported in their area, Minnesota students sprang into action with a project that focused on preventing the disease through public education. Their project demonstrates what can happen when service-learning principles are built into PBL. Find more ideas for service-learning projects from the National Youth Leadership Council.

11. Locate Experts: When students are learning through authentic projects, they often need to connect with experts from the world outside the classroom. Find the knowledgeable experts you need for STEM projects through the National Lab Network. It's an online network where K-12 educators can locate experts from the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

12. Build Empathy: Projects that help students see the world from another person's perspective build empathy along with academic outcomes. The Edutopia video, "Give Me Shelter", shows what compassionate learning looks like in action. Click on the companion links for more suggestions about how you can do it, too.

13. Investigate Climate Science: Take students on an investigation of climate science by joining the newest collaborative project hosted by GLOBE, Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment. The Student Climate Research Campaign includes three components: introductory activities to build a foundation of understanding, intensive observing periods when students around the world gather and report data, and research investigations that students design and conduct. Climate project kicks off Sept. 12.

14. Problem-Solvers Unite: Math fairs take mathematics out of the classroom and into the community, where everyone gets a chance to try their hand at problem solving. Galileo Educational Network explains how to host a math fair. In a nutshell, students set up displays of their math problems but not the solutions. Then they entice their parents and invited guests to work on solutions. Make the event even more engaging by inviting mathematicians to respond to students' problems.

15. Harvest Pennies : Can small things really add up to big results? It seems so, based on results of the Penny Harvest. Since the project started in New York in 1991, young philanthropists nationwide have raised and donated more than $8 million to charitable causes, all through penny drives. The project website explains how to organize students in philanthropy roundtables to study community issues and decide which causes they want to support.

16. Gather Stories: Instead of teaching history from textbooks, put students in the role of historian and help them make sense of the past. Learn more about how to plan oral history projects in the Edutopia story, "Living Legends." Teach students about the value of listening by having them gather stories for StoryCorps.

17. Angry Bird Physics: Here's a driving question to kickstart a science project: "What are the laws of physics in Angry Birds world?" Read how physics teachers like Frank Noschese and John Burk are using the web version of the popular mobile game in their classrooms.

18. Place-Based Projects: Make local heritage, landscapes, and culture the jumping-off point for compelling projects. That's the idea behind place-based education, which encourages students to look closely at their communities. Often, they wind up making significant contributions to their communities, as seen in the City of Stories project.

19. News They Can Use: Students don't have to wait until they're grown-ups to start publishing. Student newspapers, radio stations, and other journalism projects give them real-life experiences now. Award-winning journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki outlines the benefits this post on the New York Times Learning Network. Get more ideas about digital-age citizen journalism projects at MediaShift Idea Lab.

20. The Heroes They Know: To get acquainted with students at the start of the year and also introduce students to PBL processes, High Tech High teacher Diana Sanchez asked students to create a visual and textual representation of a hero in their own life. Their black-and-white exhibits were a source of pride to students, as Sanchez explains in her project reflection . Get more ideas from the project gallery at High Tech High, a network of 11 schools in San Diego County that emphasize PBL. To learn more, watch this Edutopia video interview with High Tech High founding principal Larry Rosenstock.

Please tell us about the projects you are planning for this school year. Questions about PBL? Draw on the wisdom of your colleagues by starting discussions or asking for help in the PBL community.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kathleen's picture

Thank you for these wonderful resources! I would like my curriculum to be more project-based...I am sure this will help get us there!I think my first step is to get them interested in nedws so we can find some area of relevent focus. I would like to find a novel to used as a springboard for something service related? Any ideas?

Koren McManus's picture
Koren McManus
High School American Government & Economics teacher from Rock Hill, SC

These are some GREAT ideas for integrating PBL into curriculm. I recently took a course in teaching strategies for Gifted Learners and PBL was at the top of the list for engaging gifted learners. I recently did a PBL activity with my advanced government students and had them create a military strategic plan in response to a blogged "attack" on the U.S. They had to think as the President and work on a strategic plan and speech to the public. It was an awesome activity to bring together the roles of the President, foreign relations, the President's cabinet, and historical military engagements/relationships with other countries. They had a great time with this!! I plan to incorporate more PBL into my lessons and am teaching a professional development short course to other teachers at my school.

Joe Hodges's picture
Joe Hodges
Business Education Teacher, 9-12 Maryland

I am excited to learn more about PBL opportunities. I teach Business Education class in a computer lab and I am always looking for new and stimulating strategies to engage my students. It is really important to make a connection from the real world to our classrooms and bridge the gap that is missing in our textbooks.
What are your thoughts in integrating PBL's in an Accounting or Personal Finance course for high school students?

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Of course your projects should focus on your course goals. But sometimes they can be school wide and use the skills in every subject area. For example, one project could be the "greening of your school". Where the students would study how to make the school an energy efficient building inside and out. The students would study construction and school laws, organize a business plan and cost analysis, architectually draw up the plans for the necessary changes, propose the changes to the school board and the school itself, seek grants to get the funding for the project, and, finally, take the time to make sure the plan is put into action. It requires math, science, social studies, English, business, CADD, and other departments to work together to get the project done. It is an example of a 2 year project and it could be an incredible experience for students in your programs.

Rachel's picture

Hi Suzie, I'm the Program Director at One World Education www.oneworldeducation.org and in addition to these great PBL ideas, I wanted to share our literacy model that is based off student writing about issues they care about such as AIDS awareness, Cyber Bullying, Muslim Identity and the Media, etc. Our research shows that students really respond to the writing of their peers and each March we choose 12 essays from hundreds of submissions and then a team of expert teacher create curriculum around the topic. It is a great way for students to get their ideas published and inspire others to write. I'd be happy to speak with you, or anyone more about this. My email is Rachel@oneworldeducation.org

Best, Rachel

Greenfield100s's picture
Greenfield100s
6th Gr Core LA/SS teacher

Do you have any similar projects for middle school? I teach 6th grade core and have adapted many of my lesson plans from my days teaching as a primary teacher but would love project that are similar engaging but specifically targeted at tweener.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

Make sure to check out The Buck Institute For Education's Online Project library: http://www.bie.org/project_search. You can search by subject and other themes. Good luck!

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