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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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PBL and STEAM Education: A Natural Fit

Both project-based learning and STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art and math) are growing rapidly in our schools. Some schools are doing STEAM, some are doing PBL, and some are leveraging the strengths of both to do STEAM PBL. With a push for deeper learning, teaching and assessment of 21st-century skills, both PBL and STEAM help schools target rigorous learning and problem solving. They are not exactly the same, but teachers can easily connect to them to teach not only STEAM content and design challenges, but also authentic learning and public, high-quality work. In fact, many know that STEAM education isn't just the content, but the process of being scientists, mathematicians, engineers, artists and technological entrepreneurs. Here are some ways that PBL and STEAM can complement each other as you deliver instruction.

From Design Challenges to Authentic Problems

Many of us have experienced, either as a teacher or student, the bridge design challenge. It often unfolds in this way. Students are given the challenge to make a bridge out of materials that will hold the most weight. These materials might be marshmallows, glue, toothpicks and the like. Students are given multiple opportunities to try out ideas and refine their work. It might culminate in a public content or presentation day when the bridges are tested for the last time. This is a fun and engaging design challenge that encourages the freedom to fail as well as opportunities for revision, reflection and using critical thinking skills.

PBL can take this design challenge up a notch. Instead of just designing a "fake" bridge, students might actually make recommendations to real architects and engineers for local bridges that need repairs. Some further math or physics content might be intentionally included and scaffolded so that students end up writing a rigorous design briefing and make a public presentation to the architects. Here the work can be more authentic and perhaps make a real difference as students truly become designers of real-world STEAM work.

In the following video about the Wing Project, these teachers crafted a design rubric and assessed the design process as a 21st century skill:

21st Century Skills

One of the essential elements of PBL is the 21st century skillset. These skills are often defined as the 4Cs -- creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication -- although there are many more, including technology literacy and health literacy. In a PBL project, teachers teach and assess one or more of these skills. This might mean using an effective rubric for formative and summative assessment aligned to collaboration, collecting evidence, facilitating reflection, and scaffolding many quality indicators and collaboration skills within the PBL project. Although STEAM design challenges foster this naturally as an organic process, PBL can add the intentionality needed to teach and assess the 21st century skills embedded in STEAM.

For example, a teacher might choose to target technology literacy for a PBL STEAM project, build a rubric in collaboration with students, and assess both formatively and summatively. In addition, the design process, a key component of STEAM education, can be utilized. Perhaps a teacher has a design process rubric used in the PBL project, or even an empathy rubric that leverages and targets one key component of the design process. When "marrying" PBL and STEAM in projects, the 21st century skills not only fit well, but fit intentionally into the assessment process.

Integrated Disciplines

Project-based learning can target one or more content areas. Many PBL teachers start small in their first implementations and only pick a couple of content areas to target. However, as teachers and students become more PBL-savvy, STEAM can be great opportunity to create a project that hits science, math, technology and even art content. The key is to start with the content. When teachers design projects, they need to leverage the backwards design framework and begin with the end in mind. The questions should be:

  • What STEAM content will be assessed?
  • What products will students create to demonstrate mastery of these many content standards?

As STEAM focuses on integration of content, pairing STEAM with PBL can hit not only STEAM content, but also content outside of the core STEAM subjects. English can be integrated, as well as foreign languages and social studies. It's all about designing effective PBL that targets these content areas.

As STEAM and PBL continue to grow in implementation, teachers can fit them together in curriculum and instructional practice. Additionally, these two approaches can capitalize on each other's strengths and fill each other's potential gaps. The key is an intentionality in design that recognizes what might be missing from each approach. Engage in your own design challenge to create STEAM PBL projects, and share your work with like-minded practitioners.

And if this is something you've tried or currently practice, please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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David Loertscher's picture
David Loertscher
Professor, San Jose State University

This article is an extremely important one for teachers throughout the world. There is another dimension to consider. In some research that I am doing now, the isolated teacher in the isolated classroom reports that for a typical learning experience, 54% of the learners meet or exceed their their expectations. When they co-teach with a teacher librarian, they report that 81% percent of the students meet or exceed thier expectations. This is not just because there are two adults mentoring, pushing, encouraging, challenging... but also the huge information and technology resources and inquiry expertise a capable teacher librarian is bringing to the experience. My tip to administrators is to encourage their teacher librarian to spend half their time engaged in such experiences and documenting their impact. For any teacher described in this article, the odds of success skyrocket. And the nice thing is that you can test the idea out at your own school.

Mark Wallace's picture
Mark Wallace
9-12 Technology Education

It's all what Technology Education professionals have been doing for years. I prefer "Integrative STEM", one silo not four.

The only part of the arts I see is "design" if that is how some describe the "A"

Trevor Shaw's picture

@ Mark Wallace -- I would suggest a broader definition of the "A," and I would not be so quick to minimize the importance and value of design in a project like this. It's not just about aesthetics. The design of any product - whether it be a video game controller or a bridge has a direct impact on its functionality and its efficiency. Conceiving of that design is an inherently creative process.

Beyond the physical design, however, lies the creative process of divergent thinking in designing a solution. Coming up with multiple possible solutions, evaluating the comparative quality of each, and selecting the best one is a fundamentally creative (artistic) process whether you are talking about the elegance of an algorithm in a computer program, the most effectively designed electronic circuit, or a way to build a better mousetrap.

Karsten's picture
Karsten
Design & Technology Teacher

Yup, technology and design educators have been following this approach for years. Decades even. Annoying when so many pretend that project-based learning and STEM or STEAM are something new or that it has not been done in public schools before. On the other hand, maybe credit will be given where credit is due. And maybe this will result in a strengthening of our programs.

Linda Keane AIA's picture
Linda Keane AIA
NEXT.cc Director, Prof Arch/EnvDes, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Our research at NEXT.cc has been in STEAM by Design. (If interested watch our TEDx (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTv6rtwyF8g). We initially spelled STEAM "STEEAM" to emphasize the role of the environment in human sustainability, but when teachers kept pointing it out as a misspelling, we changed it! Hear for yourself what PBL teachers say design brings to project based learning(http://www.next.cc/page/workshops#heading:6).

wtuttle's picture

The step prior would be to flip that classroom in order to get some traction with PBL. That's another equation:

Flipped Classroom>Lecture=PBL

David Loertscher's picture
David Loertscher
Professor, San Jose State University

I think that the crossover between the latest design thinking and inquiry as techer librarians know it would be the subject of an informed comparison and contrast and when embedded into classroom learning experiences how it fares across both concepts. Anyone out there who can make a comparison?

Trevor Shaw's picture

@Mark @Karsten -- I agree. Let's not pretend that this is all some new discovery and that things like the maker movement, PBL, and constructivist / constructionist modes of learning haven't been around for many many years. Um.. there was this guy named Dewey about a hundred years ago. But I didn't read this article as saying that. I also think that it's important to acknowledge the fact that there have been some really important things happen in the past few years that have the potential to push PBL and constructivist pedagogies forward in significant and meaningful ways -- We have learned a lot more about how the human brain works. We have fine-tuned the elements of effective pedagogy (Teaching for Understanding, Formative Assessment, Reading / Writing Workshop). We have seen huge advances that make it really simple and inexpensive for very young kids to build really cool things without advanced technical degrees (Scratch, Makey Makey, Little Bits, Arduino, 3D Printers). I don't see PBL and STEAM as new things, but I do recognize that there are lots of new elements in the current environment that can move us all forward in profound ways.

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