Project based learning in San Francisco Unified School District
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Project-Based Learning

Boosting Student Engagement Through Project-Based Learning

A researcher-practitioner partnership in San Francisco shows promising results for middle school science students.

Taji Allen-Sanchez, a sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher at San Francisco’s Aptos Middle School, is one of a growing number of teachers who believe that traditional methods of teaching aren’t preparing students for life beyond school. Lectures and direct instruction can be used to convey information to students, but they don’t enhance skills like teamwork, problem solving, and curiosity that employers are increasingly looking for.

“If you just give students answers, they’re not going to understand [the science],” he explains. “Really, any kid can memorize information, but can they apply it to an actual real-world application?”

George Lucas Educational Foundation

A 2013 survey of over 700 business leaders bears out Allen-Sanchez’s point: Half of the respondents reported that many job applicants who were technically proficient lacked the communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills necessary to do the jobs they applied for. Far too many college graduates touted high grades and test scores, but lacked key skills to be successful in the workplace.

“It’s not a matter of technical skill,” explained one employer in the survey, “but of knowing how to think.”

Aptos Middle School

Public, Urban
Grades 6-8
San Francisco, CA

New Research Shows the Power of PBL

In an attempt to foster those necessary skills, Allen-Sanchez uses a combination of project-based learning (PBL) and performance assessments to encourage his students to gain a deeper understanding of science. The curriculum he uses came out of a Stanford project looking at how PBL, paired with performance assessments, can boost student learning. The results so far have been promising: The three-year project revealed significant growth in state standardized English language arts (ELA) and math tests for students in the program. Significantly, teachers also reported seeing higher rates of participation and engagement for their students.

The program’s focus on academic discourse was especially helpful for English language learners, who outperformed their peers on the state’s measure of language proficiency.

Research shows that by organizing learning around meaningful goals, PBL can be an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students—students are motivated to deepen their understanding in order to solve a problem that is meaningful to them. Concepts are better understood when students see a need for their use because that need encourages them to apply what they’re learning to relevant situations, leading to a better sense of understanding.

In schools participating in the study, students took an active role in their classrooms, asking questions, solving problems, conducting experiments, and participating in group discussions. The students felt that their assignments were more interesting, challenging, worthwhile, and enjoyable than did students in classrooms with a traditional science curriculum. Researchers also observed higher rates of students staying on task and paying close attention to the teacher and their peers.

Redefining How Students Learn

Project-based learning can be a catalyst for transforming science learning, helping students move from asking “what?” to also asking “why?” and “how?” In a traditional classroom, students often focus on memorizing facts to pass a test. At Aptos Middle School and other schools across San Francisco, PBL is being used to encourage scientific inquiry, putting students in the shoes of scientists applying authentic reasoning practices—such as experimentation and trial and error—in the classroom. While students still learn facts, they also learn to apply those facts in open-ended projects that they help design.

This transformation is driven by the 5E model, which eschews a traditional “scope and sequence” approach in which students progress along a fixed path of concepts and skills throughout the school year. Instead, instruction is organized around five phases:

  • Engage: Students’ interest is piqued with novel ideas.
  • Explore: Hands-on activities deepen understanding.
  • Explain: Students describe ideas in their own words.
  • Elaborate: Ideas are applied to a broader context.
  • Evaluate: Students provide a rich picture of their understanding.

Allen-Sanchez explains that this model “really pushes kids to take an experience, really get immersed in it, learn about it through articles, and conversation, and discussion, and then get into more of it through the Elaborate by pushing what they already know to give more answers.”

Students in Allen-Sanchez’s science classes do more than just recite correct answers—they develop projects that utilize the 5Es. For example, students may work in groups to solve real-life engineering challenges such as working with a restaurant to design an energy-efficient kitchen. These students learn STEM concepts like the impact that windows and doorways have on thermal insulation, and they apply those concepts in complex situations: working with clients, managing projects, and executing the design cycle of prototyping, testing, and revising solutions to solve problems.

“We knew that we wanted to create a science environment in our classrooms that would disrupt the way that it had become: a course in which facts were learned and memorized,” said Jim Ryan, the former STEM executive director for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

Student Group Work

Despite the importance of team problem-solving in today’s workplaces, only 8 percent of students could meet the demands of a highly collaborative environment, while 28 percent would struggle because they have only basic levels of important skills. Schools largely aren’t addressing this skills mismatch—highlighting the need for more opportunities for students to work together to solve the complex problems that do foster the necessary skills.

At the beginning of every school year, teachers in SFUSD emphasize the need for students to work together, not just to complete challenging projects but also to help change beliefs and stereotypes about science identity.

“We recognize that students walk in the door of this classroom with issues of status behind them, that they recognize themselves as being a science person or a non-science person,” said Ryan. “It’s through student discourse and group work that they will start to dispel those beliefs about not only themselves but about their peers, and recognize that each of those students is bringing an aspect of smarts into the problem that they’re trying to solve around science.”

Throughout the year, teachers use group work to address the myth that scientists work in isolation. For Eric Lewis, the district’s science content specialist, science “requires lots of people with lots of different specializations to work together to explain an idea and to come up with solutions for the big problems that we have today.”

Teachers as Designers

To improve student learning, start with teachers—that’s the philosophy driving project-based learning in SFUSD. In a landmark study, John Hattie found that teachers account for 30 percent of the variance in student achievement, beating other factors like quality of curriculum, class size, and school funding. So after Stanford developed the new science curriculum (which can be downloaded for free), SFUSD educators worked with the researchers to improve it, playing a key role as co-designers.

“In developing this curriculum, it was absolutely critical that it was a true partnership. One, not only between Stanford and San Francisco, but between teachers, designers, administrators, etc.,” said Nicole Holthuis, a Stanford researcher and one of the creators of the curriculum. Teachers took the curriculum into their classrooms to test out and then gave each other feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

The partnership seems to be effective: Lewis says that with the 5E model and PBL, “We’re seeing more students getting their hands wet. We’re seeing more students contribute ideas. We’re seeing more students participate in many different ways.”

The Learning Through Performance study was supported by Edutopia's sister division, Lucas Education Research. Both organizations are funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.