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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Project-Based Learning: Real-World Issues Motivate Students

Concrete, authentic project-based learning helps students illustrate core knowledge.
By Diane Curtis
VIDEO: Project-Based Learning: An Overview
Ask Seymour Papert, renowned expert on children and computing, why students are turned off by school, and he quickly offers an example:

"We teach numbers, then algebra, then calculus, then physics. Wrong!" exclaims the Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematician, a pioneer in artificial intelligence. "Start with engineering, and from that abstract out physics, and from that abstract out ideas of calculus, and eventually separate off pure mathematics. So much better to have the first-grade kid or kindergarten kid doing engineering and leave it to the older ones to do pure mathematics than to do it the other way around."

In a growing number of schools, educators are echoing Papert's assertion that engaging students by starting with the concrete and solving hands-on, real-world problems is a great motivator. Ultimately, they say, such project-based learning that freely crosses disciplines provides an education superior to the traditional "algebra at age nine, Civil War at ten, Great Expectations at eleven" structure.

Students at Harlem's Mott Hall School design their kites on a computer before beginning construction.

Credit: Edutopia

Advocates also say that the availability of technology that can call up the knowledge of the world's best thinkers with the click of a mouse, that can graph in two seconds what once took hours, and that can put scientific instrumentation in a pocket-sized computer further argues for moving away from century-old models of instruction.

"Everybody is motivated by challenge and solving problems, and we don't make use of that in schools enough," says Bruce Alberts, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and former president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). "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."

Projects Run the Gamut

Examples of projects applicable to the here and now abound:

  • Soil Superheroes Project at King Middle School in Portland, ME : At King Middle School, in Portland, Maine, seventh graders learn about soil bacteria through creating multimedia information pamphlets. They consult professional microbiologists and cartoonists, conduct original research, and then distribute their completed pamphlets to local garden centers, universities, and flower shops.
  • African Wildlife DNA Project at High Tech High in San Diego, CA : At High Tech High, in San Diego, California, an eleventh grade biology class uses DNA barcoding to develop forensic techniques that help protect African wildlife. The students share their findings with wildlife-protection officials and have traveled to Tanzania to lead bushmeat-identification workshops as part of the High Tech High African Bushmeat Expedition.
  • Water Wheel Project at Ferryway School in Malden, MA : At Ferryway School, in Malden, Massachusetts, fifth-graders explore history, science, technology, and engineering by designing their own water wheels. By the time they visit the nearby Saugus Iron Works, a historic site that dates back to the 1640s, they’ve already tested and mastered the centuries-old technology.

The Big Picture

In project-based learning, students try to answer a question -- one that has relevance for them -- that is greater than the immediate task at hand. In its publication Connecting the Bits, the NEA Foundation gives the example of students at a Kentucky elementary school conducting surveys, doing research, building models, and taking field trips with the goal of determining the best kind of new bridge to build over the Ohio River.

The Internet is one of a variety of resources used for project-learning research.

Credit: Edutopia

Students conduct research using a variety of sources, from the Internet to interviews with experts. They work on the project over an extended period of time -- six weeks or more -- because of the in-depth nature of the investigation. Like adults trying to solve a problem, they don't restrict themselves to one discipline but rather delve into math, literature, history, science -- whatever is appropriate to the study.

"One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life," says Sylvia Chard, Professor Emeritus of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta and coauthor of Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, a popular book for teachers of young children on learning through projects.

"In real life, we don't spend several hours at a time listening to authorities who know more than we do and who tell us exactly what to do and how to do it," she says. "We need to be able to ask questions of a person we're learning from. We need to be able to link what the person is telling us with what we already know. And we need to be able to bring what we already know and experiences we've had that are relevant to the topic to the front of our minds and say something about them."

Chard doesn't like the term "project-based learning," because she says it implies a focus on projects to the exclusion of other legitimate learning methods; she prefers "project learning." "Younger children will play and explore as well as engage in projects," according to a statement at the Project Approach website. "Older children's project work will complement the systematic instruction in the program."

In-Depth Investigation

Chard defines project learning as an "in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children's attention and effort." She advocates a three-phased approach: Phase 1 involves an initial discussion of a project topic, including children's firsthand experiences related to the topic. Phase 2 involves fieldwork, sessions with experts, and various aspects of gathering information, reading, writing, drawing, and computing. Phase 3 is the presentation of the project to an audience.

A student at the West Hawaii Explorations Academy measures the pH balance of water as part of a project to restore ancient ponds.

Credit: Edutopia

Bruce Alberts says one reason he believes project-based learning hasn't caught on more is that parents weren't taught that way. But many parents who witness the transformation of their children become ardent converts. "There's a visible hunger to learn," says Ingo Schiller, parent of two former students at Newsome Park Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia. "When we sit down to dinner, the kids talk nonstop for twenty minutes, telling us what they did and what they saw. This is literally every day!"

And conversations with teachers who use project-based learning in a meaningful way tend to use the same words: excitement, engagement, enthusiasm.

A Host of Benefits

Enthusiasm alone isn't enough of a justification to advocate project-based learning, but the results of that enthusiasm argue in its favor, say educators and researchers who have studied or used project-based learning.

Fifth graders in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, let Houston know they’re up to the Space Day design challenge.

Credit: Edutopia

Kids who are excited about what they learn tend to dig more deeply and to expand their interest in learning to a wide array of subjects. They retain what they learn rather than forget it as soon as they disgorge it for a test. They make connections and apply their learning to other problems. They learn how to collaborate, and their social skills improve. They are more confident talking to groups of people, including adults. And, as a number of research reports suggest, project-based learning correlates positively with improved test scores, reduced absenteeism, and fewer disciplinary problems.

"I've seen test scores of students rise because of the engagement in project-based learning," says Gwendolyn Faulkner, former technology coordinator at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, in Washington, DC. "I saw my students mainstream out of English as a Second Language into the mainstream classroom. I saw my mainstream students scoring three and four grades above their grade level on standardized tests. I'm a convert."

Three Good Reasons

Eeva Reeder, a former math teacher who led a high school geometry project on designing a school for 2050, says she started project-based learning for three reasons: First, her students were not learning concepts deeply enough to apply or even remember them for a long period. Second, a growing body of research upheld the view that concepts are best understood using concrete examples constructed by the students themselves. Third, while taking a break from teaching to finish a master's thesis, Reeder took a job at a bridge-design company and realized, when she was asked to do a task, that she had never applied her knowledge of mathematics in a real-world situation.

A project on worms captures the imaginations of first graders in Newport News, Virginia.

Credit: Edutopia

"And that, fundamentally, was the final piece that shifted my thinking to the point where I realized I can't go back to the classroom and do things the same way I always have," she says.

If schoolchildren are given the gift of exploration, society will be the beneficiary, both in practical and in theoretical ways, scholars say. "This is the way that mathematics started," notes MIT's Seymour Papert. "It started not as this beautiful, pure product of the abstract mind. It started as a way of controlling the water of the Nile, building the pyramids, sailing a ship. And gradually it got richer and richer."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Last updated: 07/27/2011 by Sara Bernard

Comments (79)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Mary,
I think PBL can be better applied if it is in the form of Service Learning, the conection of classroom academic content to community needs. To help first grade students master the standard of knowing that plants and animals need water, food, and light and meet their needs in different ways, perhaps your class can work in conjunction with a local nursery and animal shelter where they can feed the plants and animals. Each student can be assigned a plant in the nursery or an animal in a shelter and feed it/him/her on a regular basis until it is sold (or animal adopted). The students can monitor their work and community hours by using a simple graph (first grade math standard). Parents can provide periodic visits to the nursery and shelter. This is both a community service as well as a lesson in first grade life science. The local nursery and animal shelter would appreciate the help, the students will make decisions that have real results, grow as individuals, increase civic participation, gain an appreciation of community, and have a real life application of a pretty abstract concept.

Mary Lou's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My reading/language arts class of on level and advanced fifth graders used the novel "The Wright 3" as a springboard for a project. We researched Frank Lloyd Wright since one of his houses was the subject matter of the novel. In the novel and more research, students found art glass windows were also designed by FLW. They used their geometry skills to produce drawings on graph paper, then made scale drawing on the windows of the classroom, then painted the windows. Then, how-to essays were written, and digital photos taken, and they will soon be shared via videorecording with other students in the district.

Question: Anyone have any project ideas for kids 2 years below level in math to incorporate division, fractions, and measurement?

Andrea B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is the project you're looking for (below grade students with fractions, decimals) related to the Frank Lloyd Wright or is it completely separate?

If separate, you might have your kids design their "dream houses" - use graph paper, certain parameters (no "dead space" in the house, must have elements of a real house - bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, etc). After they develop their floor plans, they can compute area and perimeter. Then you could have them figure out how much of the total area is the "playroom" or "kitchen". I'd guide them through this, probably using calculators.

You might preface this project with a simpler one: give the kids paper with square grids of 100 (10x10 squares). Have them make designs with colored pencils. You should have 4 to 6 grids on a page so they're not too big. Then, they count the colors they used for each design and figure out it's decimal amount/fractional amount to the whole (100). They make an "index" in which they color a little blue, for instance, and say how much of their design is blue (1/10 or 10%), red might be (1/15 or 15% of the whole grid, purple, etc.) They like this because they're making their own designs and by working with 100 it is easy to figure out the fractional/decimal parts of the whole.

Andrea B's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have students collect or use "real world" data and graph with that. I LOVE using data from the U.S. census bureau for instance. Another possiblity would be population growth, especially if you look at population over a long period of time (oh, 2000 years or more!). Watch how a barely moving line graph 'suddenly' takes off in the last century and grows exponentially (called a "J" curve bc of its shape). Great resource for population data is "Population Connection" materials.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After watching several of those project base learning vedio. I still haven't found one that truly talk about the teaching of actual math skill..

Although I agree that PBL is a good technique to inspire student's interest to work on a project but the student ultimately still need to know how to solve a basic math equation. Apparently, There are high school kids that cannot even solve a 12 X 12 multiplication table, or have no clue how to solve for the variable 5x + 3= 4....As such I am looking for a video or project base program that can (inspire) students to learn the most basics of math--Algebra, Geometry techniques.. etc.

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

These are some examples of project-based learning in a geometry class:

Measuring What Counts: Memorization Versus Understanding

Geometry in the Real World: Students as Architects

Jackie M.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Master of Education student at Walden University and new to this web blogging, yet agree with the idea of projects for use in application, analysis, and synthesis of real life applicable information. In my classroom experience, the more the student uses and "plays with" the material the more likely they will remember and make it part of their cognitive processes- the actual thinking about, application, and processing of the information makes it theirs!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I share your concern for students' learning of basic math facts and skills. I'd be nowhere, mathematically if I hadn't learned the multiplication table. I face the same problem teaching music - how to get the students to learn to read all their notes and rhythms and play scales and exercises that build technique. The solution some music teachers have turned to is to make games and activities to get the students to do the tasks that might seem like drudgery, but that have to be done. If they have games and contests to name and play notes, and speed drills on scales, most kids really get into it. The same thing works for math facts. Some of the classroom teachers I've worked with have used "Mad math minutes", where students fill in grids of multiplication tables with rows or columns in different orders, writing as fast as they can, to see how many they can do in one, two or three minutes. I can prove it works by all the ridiculous things that TV game shows get people to do, or the hours and hours kids spend mastering complex video games.

California Teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Project Based Math.....by Tom Darling is a dream.

If educators danced from topic to interesting topic all year long and save "a few weeks" at the end of the year for boring learning, we'd nowhere near learn the topics we're supposed to learn...

If project based learning is going to be taken seriously, it has to have the balls to admit it won't teach all the standards and that the trade off is worth it.

Or, in the case of certain disciplines (like math) it has to admit that the project based learning method falls short of the learning goals and that the traditional methods are better left in place...

What do you think? Is project based learning the best for math in middle school, or is it too abstract? (I teach middle school math and question this)

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