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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

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Response from Edutopia staff:

Hi Altamease,

Here are two examples of project-based learning at the primary level which show how teachers have designed and implemented projects appropriate for young learners:

Voyages of Discovery: Five-Year-Olds Explore Through PBL and accompanying video segment showing PBL in action at Auburn Early Education Center in Alabama.

Another great example comes from Newsome Park Elementary in Newport, VA. The video gives examples from K-5. The accompanying article, More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?! provides more background and context.

These two Web sites are wonderful resources for teachers interested in PBL:
The Project Approach
The Online Resource for PBL

Hope this is a good start as you explore teaching through project learning!


Diane Demee-Benoit
Consulting Online Editor,

Michelle Roush's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed watching the video of the students who are involved in this PBL program. What a wonderful way to expand students interests and knowledge that they wish to pursue. What happens if students discover that they are not as interested in a subject that they thought they were going to be? Are they allowed to change their topic/interest? This would be an exciting way to teach students so you can see the excitement and new found information that they discover on their own!

Eric Thornton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hands on learning over a command style lecure--innovative!

Angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like the concept and value of PBL. I was wondering if anyone has done this at the secondary level of History (specifically World History)? I would love to see what can be done.

Ed Greene's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Young children can acquire the knowledge and skills to be investigators and learners in ways that are appropriate to their level of development and needs.

Adults who believe this is true, and who work in settings for young children, might be interested in the work of Dr. Jef van Kuyk, and educational psychologist from The Netherlands who developed the Pyramid Approach to Early Learning.

Constructed from exciting new research findings and sound educational theories of the past, the Pyramid Approach provides an excellent balance between the power of the child to learn and develop on his or her own, and the power of the teacher to optimize the learning experience. As a result, the principles of Pyramid provide for rich creative play, stimulating independent learning, cooperative project work, and goal-oriented concept and skill development.

The primary objective of Pyramid is to create a safe and secure world for young children that entices them to stretch their imaginations, expand their horizons, leap into the unknown and reach for greater, deeper, richer understanding. Built upon the four cornerstones, Pyramid and its guiding principles create a broad base of security for children. The four cornerstones are dynamically balanced to enable children to develop with confidence, creativity and carefully crafted momentum.

Pyramid's signature four-step process is part of short-term cycles of learning that adults can learn to effectively use in their work with children. The process begins with very concrete experiences that are closest to the child's prior knowledge and current experiences. Gradually, through this dynamic cycle, children take distance and are able to gradually develop more abstract representation they need to be successful learners.

The Pyramid approach offers materials and training opportunities for early care and education practitioners that help create a dynamic and stimulating preschool environment and support the optimal development of every child.

This approach to early learning for children ages 3-5 years old, has been successful in the Netherlands for many years. It is an innovative and child development based approach to teaching and learning that is now being introduced to early care and education practitioners in the United States. You can learn more about the four-step process, and the unique use of projects at

Ed Greene, Senior Early Learning Advisor
Pyramid/Cito USA
Princeton, NJ

Angella Ricketts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really believe that PBL is great for all levels because it is more like hands on and many children are better doing projects which are usually hands on. The idea of history sounds great that would be creative and would have students that level to do some critical thinking.

Lucas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Modern students have become more inattentive and it is very difficult to conquer their attention. I think it is a very good way to raise the quality of the knowledge. Thank you very much for this video, I enjoyed it.

COlin Genge's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Has anyone seen the benefits or pitfalls of working with Spec Ed kids in project based Education? I have 8 kids that require varying degrees of additional help in a self contained classroom (8th grade) for math.

Jacqueline 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I actually did experience it in my own schooling in History in 3rd form as well as in primary school - in both cases we were divided into groups and researched a particular topic/period in history and then presented to the rest of the class (my group in both cases presented "A day in the life of" (of course we had to compress the timeframe to include some of the more interesting events that happened)

I have to say that after all these years I still remember in great detail how the Aztecs lived as well as the life of a squire to a minor lord in medieval times!
Were I to do this now with students, I'd probably include technology by suggesting that they record it and make a DVD or post on YouTube :) or build out a website as well..

Renan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm from Brazil, and i'm just amazed about this video and idea.

I'm wondering if an education like that would work with different groups amoung the world, and getting those groups together if possible(by video conferences or trips maybe).

This project is exciting in many ways, i'm looking for it!

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