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

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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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.

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

I agree. Those of educated as designers and artists realize that technologies are tools, materials are used to construct ideas. Unfortunately, few schools in the US teach design. Only three states have art&design standards and though design uses technology not all technology teachers teach design. Other countries like Canada and the UK have mandated design education in K12 since 1995. Design is a great way to do something with what you know! We adopted it for our non profit workshops to introduce design as integrative teaching strategies. Our eLearning website lets users select which subjects they wish to integrate in projects. For instance perhaps it is technology and the environment.; or science and language arts; or art&design and technology. Users can also pick a scale that they want to work on such as nano, pattern, object, space, architecture neighborhood, region or world! Maybe it is time we stop thinking in disciplines and look at human intention and learning. Imagine a school with a pattern class, the object class, the regions class. It might just develop integrative thinkers who leave K12 ready to make connections!

Mark Wallace's picture
Mark Wallace
IT Supervisor

Linda, a common misunderstanding is that Technology teachers are computer teachers. There is a remarkable difference between technology- Computers and technology- Technology Education or what some now call Engineering Ed. the later uses design and the basis for all learning. See the ITEEA Technology Education Standards. www.iteea.org I think you will be amazed at what technology education students design. We have one team of students that actually received a patent for their design and now have an LLC.. STEAM, STEM same thing! One silo not 4 or 5 is what is needed.

See this document: http://www.iteaconnect.org/TAA/PDFs/xstnd.pdf

Students will develop an
understanding of the
attributes of design.
p. 91
Students will develop
an understanding of
engineering design.
p. 99
Students will develop an
understanding of the role of
troubleshooting, research and
development, invention and
innovation, and experimentation
in problem solving.
p. 106

Karsten's picture
Design & Technology Teacher

I also found that the design curriculum in UK and NZ schools are particularly fascinating. It seems they carry it further than educating students to find technical solutions in just one classroom. There seems to be design thinking embedded in the school's/district's teaching philosophy. The engineering design process as taught in the US is great but engineering is not for everyone and I suspect that teaching design as a comprehensive, across the board, human-centered approach is a bit neglected here.

Karsten's picture
Design & Technology Teacher

On another note, ...

There is a lot of hype about 3D-printers, CNC mills, laser cutters, and other computer-controlled tools in STEM education. No doubt, these tools are awesome and they are here to stay in the world of engineering and product design. However, when considering purchasing new tools and equipment for a school program let's keep in mind that they are essentially "hands-off" tools placed in, what should be, a hands-on environment.

A tool that does all the making may give you quick results but it does not help a student become a better designer. The student does not get to touch anything but the start button at the beginning and the completed part at the end of the fabrication process. More importantly, the design needs to be constructed entirely in the designer's head before the machine makes the part. This is very difficult to do for an inexperienced person.

We need to continue to first expose our students to hand and basic power tools, allow them to work with a great variety of materials, and and let them practice making something by hand if we want them to acquire visual-spacial thinking and to understand and be able to manipulate the human-made world. You cannot expect to develop good solutions for humans if you (=a human) have never made anything with your own hands. Experience and skills matter.

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

Thanks for sharing. I see that the ITEEA is actually held in MKE where we are based and that it clearly states design as the basis for engineering using technology. It looks like it would be a lot of fun to attend and present! As architects we are aware of building technologies and engineering aspects of the built environment but unfortunately have not seen a lot of it introduced in schools. (FInland and Germany seem to be leading instruction of the built environment in their educational systems).Here is the US we see many schools that do not have any kind of making going on either in art classes or in traditional shops. We believe very much in seamless integration of physical and digital study and testing.

We create NEXT.cc to assist students, teachers and schools in introducing design in a fun and friendly way. We aim at reaching the underserved populations by sharing different ranges of activities, getting students interested and excited and then exposing them to career potentials. We draw upon the UK's Future Labs and Microsoft's Enquiring Minds(http://www.enquiringminds.org.uk/) and Digital Literacy(http://www.futurelab.org.uk/resources/digital-literacy-across-curriculum...) reports in structuring structuring journeys around systems thinking and 21st century skills. Journeys designed by designers align very much with the iterative process described in the US Technological Literacy report. It is encouraging to learn that many schools DO incorporate engineering and design sciences through technology.

Mark Wallace's picture
Mark Wallace
IT Supervisor

The design needs be be developed using design software such and then that is sent to the 3dPrinter. My engineer friends wish they had more hands on material processing type classes in high school so that they better understood what the materials could do and if what they designed could actually be made with the tools of the trade. Many schools have eliminated those course thinking they wouldn't help a kid get into a university. Maybe not, but they would be better prepared.

Andrew Watson's picture
Andrew Watson
Visual Arts teacher from Fairfax County, Virginia

Right on!

However, what makes this moment so exciting is that for the first time industry is asking us to move beyond skills and focus on thinking. We already know how, but we are finally being asked to do what is best for kids.

Andrew Watson's picture
Andrew Watson
Visual Arts teacher from Fairfax County, Virginia

The same is true for art educators. But, the most important difference is that STEM/STEAM is focused on every child, not just a few in an elective. Every child needs to experience hands on learning and understand how to use the design cycle. Technology, engineering, and art classes still need to exist for those students that show an inclination (and this number will likely grow as more students will understand what we teach), but we need to become district leaders and share our pedagogy.

Andrew Watson's picture
Andrew Watson
Visual Arts teacher from Fairfax County, Virginia

Mark, it is design, but it is so much more.

The "A" refocuses STEM on Innovation through a greater focus on creativity (not that the arts owns creativity, it is just a preoccupation for us).

The "A" strengthens the "E" as both art and engineering are really about making. Currently, elementary students in most districts learn the design cycle, tool use, drawing, and addative and subtractive construction in the art room.

The "A" allows these young makers to deal with ambiguity in a way that traditional enginnering education has difficulty addressing. The arts are about asking questions as much as they are about solving problems.

The "A" adds an aesthetic consideration to our students' designs. As technology levels become more universal and construction costs go down, the products of the future will rely more heavily on the look and feel of the product.

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