George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Combining Social Studies and STEM in a Project-Based Learning Unit

High school students can apply lessons from science, technology, engineering, and math classes to a local issue they’re interested in.

June 30, 2021
Rawpixel / iStock

Though different in numerous ways, social studies STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes complement one another. Social studies brings empathy to the problems STEM can solve, and social studies teachers can showcase the relationships between STEM, history, and justice while highlighting state standards through a STEM-focused PBL.

In the following PBL, which utilized the design thinking process, social studies teachers engaged students in a problem of justice that had deep historical roots and whose solution required a STEM focus.


The U.S. history teachers at South Doyle High School brainstormed a variety of problems in Knoxville, Tennessee, that would intersect STEM and history. The lack of sidewalks in South Knoxville emerged as a challenge that cast a long shadow. In planning the PBL, we spoke with a variety of community partners, including a professor of urban planning at the University of Tennessee, a City of Knoxville engineer, and local politicians. Each provided invaluable insight into the issue.

Empathy and the Problem

To understand the problem and its impact, students were asked: Who rides the public transit bus in Knoxville, and how do they get to a bus stop safely? Students compared a map of the bus routes and a map of the current sidewalk system, looking for gaps. Students found that the last mile between a person’s home and the bus stop often had no sidewalks. It became clear that Knoxville is automobile dependent, and the guiding question became, “Why no sidewalks?”

To gain historical context, students used Zillow to look up the ages of five homes on a road with sidewalks and five homes on a road without sidewalks in Knoxville. They quickly realized that homes built before World War II had sidewalks, whereas homes built post-1945 didn’t. With this historical understanding, students saw how suburbanization and the rise of the automobile in the 1950s continued to impact their community. Being concerned about this problem was humanities driven, but solving this problem meant turning to STEM.

An engineer from the City of Knoxville spoke to the U.S. history classes about the city’s budget for new sidewalks, how the city determines where to construct new sidewalks, and also careers associated with sidewalk construction. On average, the city budgets about $2 million per year for new sidewalks, but the engineer said that it takes roughly “a million a mile” to build a sidewalk in an already developed area.

The engineer shared with students the rubric for ranking roads for new sidewalks with limited funds: Does it connect existing sidewalks, does it connect to a bus stop, is it within the parental responsibility zone of a school, and is the road dangerous to walk? Lastly, the engineer discussed careers associated with sidewalk construction, from civil engineer to surveyor to construction worker. This appealed to the majority of students, from mathematical gurus to those just wanting to work with their hands.


In groups, students began imagining various solutions to the lack of sidewalks, with the goal of producing a prototype that could solve the problem to present to people. Students discussed possible solutions, such as raising property taxes, philanthropy, looking for grants from the state and federal government, using municipal bonds, and reprioritizing the city budget. Students dug into the City of Knoxville’s budget and researched businesses that moved to areas with robust public transportation networks because an investment in sidewalks could lead to economic growth.

The groups had the choice of how they wanted to present their solution. For the prototype, students included an understanding of the problem, how they would rank roads for new sidewalks, the economic impact of sidewalk construction, a road they would prioritize for new sidewalks, and how to pay for it. Most groups chose a Google Slides presentation and included pictures of people walking local roads that didn’t have sidewalks.

Test and Present

After days of research and prototype creation, groups tested their presentation with the class, with each group member having a defined role in the presentation. Students analyzed each presentation regarding its feasibility and then voted on the best group presentation that would represent the class to the local politicians coming to campus.

A major hurdle to PBLs is getting community involvement. In this project, we had a county commissioner in the morning and a city councillor in the afternoon hear student presentations. After listening to all student presentations, these politicians gave feedback, from adjusting monetary figures on new sidewalks to the reality of urban sprawl to congratulating students on picking a road that the city had already chosen for new sidewalk construction. The biggest impact from the local politicians was their presence—students felt they were actually a part of the solution to the problem. The real-world audience empowered and emboldened them.

Social studies and STEM complement each other and can work together in more ways than we initially realized. The lack of sidewalks was connected to obesity, pollution, and urban planning, to name a few links. There are many more real-life problems that might be solved at the intersection of social studies and STEM.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • STEM
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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