Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Engaging Students With Challenge Based Learning

High school students can participate in hands-on, relevant projects that provide effective solutions to problems in their community.

April 3, 2024
Nikola Stojadinovic / iStock

Challenge Based Learning (CBL) is a powerful pedagogical approach to reengaging students in the classroom. CBL promotes active participation, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and, more important, a sense of purpose among students. By engaging in hands-on, relevant tasks, students develop the necessary skills to thrive in a future where continuous learning is essential. 

The Challenge Based Learning Framework can be adapted to any subject or grade level and provides a structure in which students identify a problem, ask questions, and conduct research that leads to a proposed solution. Then, they put that solution into action to create change in their school or community. When students get to identify a problem, they’re more invested in the learning process and outcome.

Come Up With the Big Idea and Essential Question

For a CBL project, you need a big idea that captures students’ imagination and interest and addresses a real-world issue like the environment or inequity. In my anatomy and physiology classes, our big idea is always health and wellness.

At the beginning of the year, I ask my students, “What are the health and wellness issues that impact our community and world?” Once they’ve generated plenty of thoughts, they develop a “How can we…” question based on those issues. I have them share their questions in Padlet to promote discussion and use these questions throughout the year to develop challenges within our units of study.

Investigate, Implement, and Act

The investigate stage of CBL encourages students to explore and learn more about the problem. The process supports research skills and promotes a good understanding of the challenge itself. For my classes, the investigation phase usually takes us one full class period for research and planning. Next, I have them put together a quick presentation to pitch their ideas to the class so we can vote on the best option. 

Students engage in collaborative discussions, look for unique perspectives, and develop a plan that would address the challenge. It’s important for them to be well-informed about the problem in order to suggest a solution.

The implementation phase of CBL is the moment it all comes together. After investigating, discussing, and planning, we finally have a plan of action and are ready to move forward. This phase of dealing with real-world problems involves collaborative teamwork and effective communication and also promotes a sense of accountability, adaptability, and resilience within students. 

Process Snapshot

Here’s how we go through the CBL process in my class:

Big idea: Health and wellness

Essential question: How can we improve mental health in our community?

Investigate: With a solid question in place, students need more of a background in mental health in order to know how to improve it. I typically give them some research questions to get them started but allow them to follow any path that interests them. Here are some prompts I’ve given them:

  1. How do certain mental health conditions alter brain chemistry?
  2. How can your environment impact your mental health?
  3. What are some healthy ways to reduce stress and anxiety?
  4. How does social media play a role in mental health?

During this phase, we do activities that help students learn more about the topic, such as a sheep brain dissection, reaction-time experimentation, and reflex testing. These activities allow me to cover the content of the class but still connect to the topic.

We discuss how mental health impacts brain structures and how age can alter reaction times and reflexes, and we identify good solutions to maintaining a healthy brain.

Implementation: After researching and learning more, each group comes up with an idea of how to accomplish our essential question and pitches it to the class. They create a presentation that includes all the details of their idea and implementation plan. 

Choose a Project and Reflect

Groups present on a range of topics and ideas such as developing intramural sports teams to give students an outlet to reduce stress, putting on a holiday party at the local senior center, and incorporating mental health days into classes. After each group presents, we vote and decide to move forward with two big projects. 

This year, the first project was a holiday party at our local senior center. The group that presented the idea reached out to the senior center for approval and organized the whole event. They designed games and competitions, all the while learning about brain development, age-appropriate activities, and project planning. More than 35 anatomy students volunteered to host the event on their day off from school. Each group ran a station for the seniors to attend. The senior center had more than 75 people show up that day. Watching my kids interact with the elderly community was the best part of my year to that point. None of this event counted toward any grade. They were there because they wanted to be.

The second project we’ll implement is a mental health fair. Many students had great ideas of little things to do, so someone suggested that we just host a festival of some sort. We contacted a local nonprofit, The Defensive Line, and will host an event with them this May. Groups will host tables that feature pet adoption, crafts, journaling, pickup sports games, art therapy, and yoga. 

At the conclusion of any activity, I ask students to reflect on their learning. A typical reflection is in the form of a survey that asks them, “What did you like? What would you change? How could we improve it for next time?” This always helps me to make improvements for the next one. I look forward to hearing what they have to say this year.

Be Brave—It’s Worth It

Change is hard. Doing something out of your comfort zone is hard for most people. 

At the beginning of the year, when my students suggested we do a CBL event each month, I was a bit overwhelmed and anxious. However, I knew it would be for the good of everyone involved. Students get opportunities to hold leadership positions and build strong relationships within our classroom and community. We’ve run six mini CBLs this year and have two more left, with the mental health fair as the finale. My students have stepped up—doing things beyond my expectations to make these events successful and fun.

We want our students to learn how to navigate the evolving landscape of technology, improve their problem-solving skills, and make a positive impact on society. Embracing change in education isn’t merely about staying current, it’s about instilling a particular mindset within ourselves and modeling the values of lifelong learning, creative thinking, and a willingness to take risks.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Service Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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