Project-based learning (PBL) is a powerful educational approach that fosters student engagement, critical thinking, and real-world skills. To truly maximize the impact of PBL, it’s essential to infuse authenticity into the learning experience.
By integrating authentic products and roles into PBL initiatives, educators can provide students with a unique opportunity to connect their learning to the real world. According to John Larmer, project-based-learning expert, a project is authentic when “the project meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products that students create are used by real people.”
In this article, we explore two different truly authentic PBL experiences, according to Larmer’s descriptions. In the context of hazardous weather (Get Ready Kids) and energy concepts (Energy & Me), third- and fourth-grade students had an immersive opportunity to explore the significance of authentic roles and creating authentic products for our community partner Central Hudson Gas & Electric.
As STEAM professional development specialists, we collaborated with our community partner and co-planned and designed the PBL experiences with the classroom teachers. Additionally, we aligned the work with the curriculum and engaged directly with students, fostering inquiry-based learning, guiding them through investigations, and encouraging critical thinking, tailoring the lessons to the cognitive level of third- and fourth-grade students.
We provided support with technology use, resources, and strategies, and provided ongoing support to ensure that both teachers and students thrived in these interdisciplinary learning endeavors.
Authentic Products: Creating Something for Someone
Central Hudson Gas & Electric, an energy company based in New York, has a Kids Corner page on their website that serves as an educational resource for the children of the community. The two PBL experiences were designed in collaboration with Central Hudson, which houses the student products on the Kids Corner site, making it available to all of their clients. They also posted the student-generated social media on X, formerly known as Twitter.
In addition to the public products, there were celebratory events to showcase the student work, and students presented their experiences to leaders from both our school district (Wappingers Central School District) and Central Hudson Gas & Electric.
In the PBL experience Get Ready Kids, grade three students from two different buildings worked together to create a webpage as a product about hazardous weather. The students and teachers came to a consensus on the different weather events based on historical challenges our community has faced. The webpage includes definitions, ways to reduce impacts of hazardous weather, and potential action plans in preparation for hazardous weather
In Energy and Me, grade four students from two different buildings collaborated to create a virtual reality experience as a product using ThingLink and ClassVR about energy generation, transmission, and distribution, as well as energy transfer and conversion. They also created public service announcements using Canva relating to responsible energy usage.
All of the content our grade three and grade four students explored was aligned with their respective science curriculum and New York State Science Learning Standards.
Authentic Roles: Bridging Classroom and Career
Both experiences required a range of skills and knowledge to ensure an informative and engaging online presence. In order to achieve this, our students had to assume authentic roles similar to Central Hudson’s employees.
Via Google Meet, the students engaged with Central Hudson’s public relations specialist, delving into discussions on the diverse roles and responsibilities. (There were minor title differences, but each role’s skills and responsibilities were authentic.) The students selected the roles they felt they were best suited for. Quality Assurance, Content Specialists, Graphic Designers, and Personalities involved teams of students. The Project Managers oversaw the different teams. Each role required a set of skills.
- Project Manager: The student Project Managers in both PBL experiences had to communicate effectively, delegate tasks, and manage their time to meet project deadlines and deliver a cohesive and polished final product.
- Quality Assurance: Creating online platforms involves checking for errors, testing functionality, and ensuring a consistent and professional appearance. Students had to possess strong attention to detail to identify and be able to address any issues that might arise during the development process.
- Content Specialists: Students had to conduct research on the various topics and understand sophisticated aspects of the utility services. They needed to gather reliable information from credible sources and show strong communication and writing skills to develop concise and engaging content. They had to gather and synthesize information about the topics and present it effectively to the target audience.
- Graphic Designers: Students needed to understand various graphic design principles and tools, such as Google Sites, Canva, and ThingLink, and how these can enhance the visual appeal of the resources. They had to create or select appropriate images, graphics, and icons that convey the message and enhance user experience.
- Personalities: The personalities are the students who applied voice-over enhancements and videos to convey information. These students had to understand the technology they were interacting with (Canva, Flip) and have strong oral communication skills, public speaking poise, adaptability, and flexibility, as well as time management ability.
The involvement of community partners, the cultivation of empathy, and the infusion of authenticity are essential elements that connect students to the real world. Our students were able to collaborate with our community partner Central Hudson, bringing the real-world expertise and perspectives into the learning process and exposing students to professionals who work in relevant fields.
Fostering empathy and creating something for someone allowed our students to develop a deep understanding of diverse perspectives, needs, and experiences. It encouraged them to consider the impact of their work on individuals and communities, promoting a sense of responsibility and ethical decision-making.
By integrating these elements of community engagement, empathy, and authenticity, PBL created a bridge between the classroom and the real world, equipping our students with the skills and mindset necessary to address real-world challenges and make a positive difference in their communities.