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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
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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

Pat Ward's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like other's experience with children with learning disabilities benefitting from project based learning in a faith based K-8 school.

jlautzenheiser's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How in the world can a real life question bring in algebraic concepts, such as graphing equations, polynomials, etc? I would love to incoporate projects into math but, how? Any suggestions from someone who teaches middle school math?

Tom Darling's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the other member of a two person middle school team; not math/science, but social studies and language arts. Still, I love math and the logic involved, but our school has embraced the Connected Math Program (CMP) and it ties my teammates hands. That said, I have seen several projects that cross disciplines.

Slide rulers, for example, fascinate the kids and really make them think about the concepts behind them. I show the scene in "Apollo 13" where they first have a problem and then must recalculate everything using slide rulers. Then, we make simple ones, and more complicated ones based on their understanding of the principles of the simples ones. We have contests in using them quickly, etc. You can go a variety of places.

Cryptology uses a number of equations and such. In the historical sense, it is good for the rise of spies, etc., but it also says a lot about security today. Again the kids are fascinated as they try to create and break each other's codes.

Looking at some of Escher's work has wonderful mathematical qualities. The white birds flying into black birds, for example (name?), is interesting to break down in a mathematical sense.

Social sciences, statistics and the like uses tons of complex mathematical equations, of which designing demands a clear understanding of issues. We have thrown simple problems at them as examples, and then had them create more complicated ones. These must come from their own observations about life around them. That's why the Fiberace (sp?) Sequence from "Da Vinci Code" is so fascinating to them; so simple, and it is everywhere. We used, for example, an equation that had them look at the "snowball" dance at our last dance, and using the number of people at the dance how long it would take to conclude. Then we built on it.

If you are looking at project based learning to seamless slip into the specific equation you are going to teach, forget it. You need to break ideas down into sections, put the related concepts in that grab bag, and lead them in that direction. Then, as they master each concept, push them until they pull another concept out of the grab bag. You can lead them, and you can do mini lessons on each concept as it comes up. In the end, save a few weeks at the end to do "dull", traditional lessons to cover what has not been discovered. Also, use mini lessons to show the other aspects of each concept.

I hope this is not to patronizing, but it has been effective around my neck of the woods.

Jean Willis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my 18th year at my PK-8 small, faith based school. For the past 4 years I have been the principal; prior to that I taught various subjects in grades 5-8. As a middle school teacher, I always used project-based learning. Now that I'm principal, it's spreading to the other grades. We have students of all abilities in our school - children with Down's syndrome, autism,diagnoses of ld's such as auditory dyslexia, processing disorders, etc., average, above-average, and gifted. Project-based learning is ideal because it allows each student to learn in their best modality and then to present what they have discovered in the way that they can best communicate it. This gives them success as a worthwhile contributor to the group. Obviously, teacher direction and guidance are important. Once the group has decded how they want to approach the project, the teacher meets with them and makes sure that each student in the group has a clearly defined role and his/her task plans are commensurate with ability. Continual conferencing with the group is essential on the teacher's part.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought it would be fun to put a little reality into our classroom jobs. I teach a 3/4 combo. As we discussed the jobs, I gave each student a job application to fill out. (Some returned their applications with a cover letter and a resume.) They struggled with language ie. D.O.B., references, prior experience, etc. Then I told them they would get paychecks. The discussion was electrifying. We discussed an appropriate amount for their salaries, what they could do with their money, and what the goal was for the end of the year and what would happen if they lost their job (unemployement, of course!). Some kids appeal to me for raises. Discussions led to conversations like: "If someone loses their job, can I apply for it and have two jobs?" "Can I pay someone to do my homework?" "Where do we keep our money?" This led to checking accounts and deposit slips and eventually personal checks. I give bonuses for kids who work hard or do something special during the week. I give kids fines for talking that they have to pay with a personal check. Then we bought stocks. We studied local stocks and watch them every week. A fourth grader got this quizical look in his eye and he asked, "Can a kid buy a stock? Where does he go to buy one?" This is so motivating to me - they learn math, vocabulary, reading and simply real life. We are six weeks into the school year and I can't wait to see where this takes us next. I think we'll work on evaluating their portfolios...

Denise Stouffer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am looking for a PBL project for solving 1 and 2 step equations. Any Suggestions?


Visitor256's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have visited your site 424-times

Mary Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think PBL sounds like a fantastic idea, but I am having difficulty thinking of problems to solve at a level low enough for first grade. Does anyone have any suggestions for first grade? Or do you know where I can look to find some?

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

These videos and accompanying articles provide examples of how project-based learning is being used in the primary grades:

The Newsome Park Elementary video segment shows how one K-5 school has infused project-based learning into all grade levels

Turning on the Switch has a short clip of students learning about frogs using the expeditionary learning approach.
Nuuanu Elementary in Honolulu provides wonderful examples of technology-infused, project-based learning for grades K-5.

You can browse our entire archive of project-based learning articles, videos and resources for many different ideas and examples.

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