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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Project-Based Learning: An Overview

Seymour Papert, a distinguished professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is among a growing group of scholars who support project-based learning. Read a short introductory article or watch a brief introductory video.
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Student: We would place the dome right here, for instance.

Narrator: These sophomore geometry students in Seattle, have a problem. And they're excited about solving it.

Eeva: The problem that they have to solve, is how do you design a state of the art high school in the year 2050, on a particular site. Students are in teams of three to four, and they're in a design competition for a contract to build it.

Student: Here's the fire eliminator. This is a vacuum, there's water inside it.

Narrator: In Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, these fifth graders are designing a tool to put out fires in space.

Student: If you turn it on high, it sucks up the fireballs.

Narrator: In Newport News, Virginia, these second graders are investigating cystic fibrosis.

Student: One of our students has CF, and we're trying to learn about CF, to see what it is, how it works.

Narrator: In Hawaii, high school students are building electric cars, and racing them. These students have something in common. They are energized, focused, and challenged, determined to do their best.

Student: Yeah, yeah, put something right there.

Narrator: They are collaborating in hands-on, real world projects, studying everything from robots to worms, learning lessons they'll never forget and having fun in the process.

Student: We did a experiment on dead worms. We smelled them, and they didn't smell good.

Narrator: Worms are just one of the subjects students explore in depth at Newsome Park, a K through five science magnet school in Newport News, Virginia, that has embraced the concept of project based learning.

Teacher: See the different type of fish down here?

Narrator: Each class picks a topic to study for the semester. They then plan a research phase which includes field trips to gather information.

Student: Transportation for Effects.

Narrator: At the conclusion of the project, they share their findings in oral presentations, digital slide shows and display boards which are viewed and critiqued by their parents and their peers.

Peter: Project based learning was really the delivery model that we felt would allow kids to learn, and really learn about what they want to learn about. I mean, so many years, we've been pumping kids full of stuff that we think is appropriate, and really, in many instances, maybe that was successful. But it's much more successful and exhilarating, when kids have the input that we allow them to have here at Newsome Park.

Student: How do you spell, Mineral?

Narrator: Putting students at the center of the learning process is the key to transforming the educational system, according to world renowned mathematician and educator, Seymour Papert.

Seymour: Well, first thing you have to do is give up the idea of curriculum. Curriculum meaning you have to learn this on a given day. Replace it by a system where you learn this where you need it. So that means, you've got to put kids in a position where they're going to use the knowledge that they're getting.

Student: Put numbers inside the tank, so it's one, two, three, four, five.

Narrator: At the West Hawaii Explorations Charter School, on the Kona Coast of Hawaii, students design their own research projects and pursue several of them over the course of the school year.

Student: Now let it sit here.

Narrator: They're involved with everything from engineering electric racing cars..

Student: It's like a greenhouse in here.

Narrator: To surveying coral reef ecosystems.

Erin: I've got about a 26.

Narrator: Erin Rietow has been studying the health of several brackish water ponds, and in the process, is learning much more than she did in a traditional classroom setting.

Erin: I love what I do, and it's really exciting, and it feels good, instead of-- compared to being where I was before, sitting in a classroom, four walls, lights, textbooks, desks. This is my classroom now. This is where I learn.

Bruce: Most students never find out what science is. They hate it because it's memorizing all this stuff. So project based learning gives everybody a chance to sort of mimic what scientists do, and that's exciting and it's fun, if it's done well.

Student: Going down, all right.

Student: Wow, that's a drop.

Narrator: New technology is the driving force behind the project based learning revolution. For Mott Hall, a science and technology magnet school in New York City's Harlem District, the paradigm shift began when each student received a laptop computer.

Mirian: And when we put the laptops and the technology directly into the hands of teachers and students, we started to move from a more traditional instructional model, to a project base and constructivist model, and we really embraced this as a school community, because we feel that, what is important for our students, is for them to be directors and managers of their own learning.

Teacher: What kind of poem would you make out of that one?

Student: A silly one.

Mirian: We really wanted to have children collaborate with each other, have children engage in multidisciplinary types of projects that were longer, that were more complex.

Student: Using the graph paper on the computer, I've created a scale for my kite.

Mirian: We feel this is more authentic, we feel this is more challenging work for our students, and we have seen that it has yielded very positive results.

Seymour: They idea of learning experientially and through projects, it's been around forever. I mean, the 19th-- John Dewey was saying that, Piaget, anyone you can-- you name it. Why did they not have more powerful influence? Because of the limitations of the knowledge technology that we had in the past. But now with the computer, somebody who's interest is in graphic arts, can use mathematics as an instrument to produce shapes and forms and motions on computer screens.

Student: I'm going to go online, because I'm researching my topic, which is, how to say, Kite, in different languages.

Seymour: We have infinitely greater ways of connecting the particular interests that an individual human being might have, with the powerful ideas. And so they really can learn knowledge by using it.

Teacher: These are Angel Fish.

Narrator: Schools all over the country have found creative ways to use community resources and have formed partnerships with local institutions to create exciting projects.

Announcer: The drivers are psyched, the cars are ready, so let's take a look at the field.

Narrator: In Hawaii, the Island's power company sponsors the Electron Marathon Car Race. Every year, students from the Islands design and build electric cars, and race them in an energy efficiency competition.

Student: Do you think it's time that we transfer them again?

Student: Transfer them.

Student: Definitely?

Narrator: And in Manhattan, a partnership between Mott Hall and the City College of New York, allowed these eighth graders to work on their class science project, while advancing vital research on single celled organisms.

Susan: They'll talk to you about these species of microorganisms, just as if they were the scientists in the labs, and that's exactly what we want, for them to feel, not necessarily they're going to become scientists, but if that's what they want to do, they can do it.

Student: I think it's a privilege to be here, and I found it to be really fun, and it expanded my horizons like, now I can see that I have more choices for a job.

Student: Okay, so now count them.

Narrator: Some critics of project based learning voice concerns about the challenge of assessment and the maintenance of academic standards, but proponents like Seymour Papert insist that project based learning is the surest path to knowledge in the 21st Century.

Seymour: Standardization is a guarantee of no standards, because the standard I would like to see is thinking differently, is the individual having the right to pursue individual interest, and this is where you'll get deep and wonderful growth of individuals.

Erin: If you want to excel, and you want to push yourself, there isn't any class in a public school that could give you what you can give yourself, and that's what the greatest thing is, is because it's all you. I'm so blessed to have been able to go this school. It's great.

Student: What's the temperature of the water?

Seymour: Imagine if kids from the beginning could be learning through developing their interests, through things that they're in love with, that they cared about. You know, just imagine, yeah.

Narrator: For more information on, What Works in Public Education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Diane Curtis
  • Roberta Furger
  • Sara Armstrong


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Alfred Shapiro
  • William Turnley
  • John Dobovan
  • Jeff McGall
  • Gabriel Miller
  • Lou Trusty


  • Susan Blake


  • Morgan Ho

Comments (64)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

perfumes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a wonderful way to extend students interests and knowledge.!!
Somebody have experience implementing this?

Ron Sease, MAT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Industrial Arts is a dieing breed in New Mexico and the dumbing down of America continues through forced standardized testing. Project Based Learning is what we (Elective teachers)do and should be done throughout every school. Insted we push children into little rooms, developing near sightedness for the rest of their lives, like myself. I was forced into retirement because Administrators concider Industrial Arts and the Arts a dinosaur. The universities, here, haven't trained Industrial Arts teachers in over 30 years. Insted we could be producing the cars and arcitecture of the future and developing fuel cells. We could design and develop cities that think!
I have a design for a school from K to PhD resembling a Star Fleet Academy totally built on the concept of Project Based Learning. A fun Place.

Most Sincerely
Ron Sease, MAT

Kenny Powers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Seems like it might be difficult to implement. Could be a challenege to assess. Students that lack motivation could struggle with this type of learning.

Travis Collier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is a great idea it gets the students ready to work in the real world!!!!!

Amy McBride's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a college early childhood education major, I think these ideas are fabulous but I'm interested to see how this is used in a kindergarten classroom. It seems there is so much content that must be taught in early grades that it may be hard to balance the project based program with what is required.

Minnie Mouse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed watching the video. It was very interesting listening to the points of views about project based learning and seeing students actually involved in their project based learning.

Amber Weeks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Project-Based Learning seems to be a wonderful way for students to learn. The students in the videos appear to be having a great time learning. I think that is important for students to enjoy their learning experiences and PBL is the way to achieve that enjoyment for most students.

Melissa Erario's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think project based learning is a great way for students to be involved hands-on and understand material concretely. Not only does this help students work with others and collaborate with projects, but it also helps with communication skills. Science and math seem to be a subject which is used often.

A negative about project based, is there seems to be computers and other forms of technology which is used, but developing good handwriting is a necessity for students to learn. Not all schools have the opportunity to even have one computer in the classroom. Using textbooks is important for students who have a different learning style. By incorporating some project based learning in the classroom with other types of learning, it will help all students who have different learning styles.

Allison and Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Right on! We absolutely loved it. The innovative approach to teaching project based learning is awesome. While some critics raised the issue of assessment, i think this is an excellent time to use authentic assessments via ruberics! Kids will now be able to see that there is a reason they're in school and they will want to learn more... curiosity is the soul of genius, and project based learning breeds curiosity

Kayla S. Knopf's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that Project Based Learning is a great idea. Students commented on how PBL allows them to learn from their experiences and through trial and error. I think that PBL can be more effective the traditional instruction is done so effectively, especially for special needs students. PBL can be more motivational that traditional learning as well because students are not just sitting in a chair listening to a lecture. Through this method of instruction, students can understand, apply, and retain information better and build skills, like critical thinking and communication.

I think that students who participate in PBL will value their work more, because it is relevant to them. I can only imagine how much the students building the electric cars learned through this project, and I'm sure that they will never forget this knowledge because it is interesting and exciting. Pursuing individual interests help students to excel. PBL helps build lifelong learning and generates motivation in all students because of the freedom of curriculum. This way of teaching is phenomenal.

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