Project-Based Learning: An Overview | Edutopia
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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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Has anyone done this with 4th/5th grade language arts or social studies?

Jill Gastrock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I implement project-based learning through planning a literary trip to Boston & surrounding area. Students are given a time frame, money limits, adult-student ratio, etc. I teach American Literature and one year I did this at the beginning, and students could relate back to it when we were going through the Colonial Period and this year I will try it at the end of the year and students can review those literary giants from the Boston area and are reminded of the Colonial Period setting after reading The Crucible. This could easily be transferred to planning a literary-based trip anywhere in the world.
Good luck.

Virginia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been reading a lot about PBL lately, and I really liked what the Buck Institute had to say - which is basically what I think you are saying - direct instruction is still necessary for basic skills. My assumption is that you have to start from the top and work down. Decide what skills you hope your students leave your classroom with and then design a project that aims towards those - assuming basic skills are there, or at least attainable in the course of the project. Also, may be it is a matter or just giving it a go and seeing what needs to be done. Maybe you start with some assumptions, learn you are wrong and build in instructional time for what is missing. Of course, I've only done small projects working towards doing something bigger and I teach in a private school where I have more freedom than the average public school teacher.

Virginia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Could you explain your literary field trip a bit more? I've been looking for PBL implementations in my lit class and most of what I find is "Well - they write up their findings" and the like.

LaVonna Betz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are the only gifted magnet school in St. Louis Public School District. Each of our 5th grade Spanish students have been working diligently to create, illustrate, translate, & narrate an original story which we are bringing to you as a podcast.


The stories are an outgrowth of the textbook we use in the Spanish Language Progam at Kennard. The textbook borrows heavily from the TPR method of teaching, which is Total Physical Response begun by James Asher in the 1920's. Basically students learn Spanish by acting it out. The textbook uses simple TPR stories in cartoon form. The podcasts are inspired by these stories.

Many, if not all of our students, have ever done much with computers and some heve never even heard their own voices. So the project was in itself a brand-new learning experience in what they can do with a computer. In some ways I feel like a pioneer with a laptop and a few ideas to help make learning Spanish fun and exciting to my students.

We're still uploading our stories online, so we're still anziously waiting to see ourselfes online! Come visit us at and tell us what you think!

Akif ÇEÇE's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

what are disadvantages the project based learning, any idea or article you know?
what is the "pbl" state in the world,, write pls

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

In response to Akif CECE --

There is a growing body of research that shows the advantages of project learning for students and teachers. Some of the challenges of project-based learning include
increased preparation time to come up with the "essential question" for the project and the time to evaluate student work.

These edutopia articles and videos offer some answers:
A New Way to Teach: Begin with the End

Assessment for Understanding: Taking a Deeper Look
The PBL Launch Pad: Worthwhile Projects for High School Students, Part 1

Edutopia's free module on Assessment will provide you with some basic starting points.

Finally, the Web site PBL Online would be an excellent resource for someone interested in learning more about how to do project-based learning.

Overall, teachers I've spoken with who take the project learning approach say they'd never teach in a different way because the benefits far outweigh the costs.

michele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that PBL will enhance the students way of thinking. It provides hands on experience, which helps the students become more aware of what they are learning.

Janet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The video showed a variety of situations involving project-based learning. Students in a number of schools were involved in hands-on experiences. Some were involved in making vehicles, and some were actually diving for various underwater treasures. The students were self-involved, and working with groups. It was very impressive.

Altamease Ford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am interested in exploring PBL for my kindergarten class. Can anyone share their experiences in this area?

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