Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Find Experts for Your Next PBL Unit

Guest speakers can help teachers convey content and assess students’ understanding, and they may be easier to find than you’d expect.

August 19, 2019
Steve Debenport / iStock

Authenticity is key in any project-based learning (PBL) unit, and one of the most effective ways to make your project authentic is to bring the outside world into the classroom. That is, invite experts into the classroom to help teach the content. You don’t have to shoulder the burden of communicating content alone.

There are clear plusses to bringing in an expert. Doing so raises student engagement and makes content more “sticky.” It also triggers student curiosity and helps to develop their ability to ask questions. Once that guest speaker is on the calendar, the teacher can guide students in how to craft better, more effective questions. And when the guest is in the room, those questions they’ve written and asked can be used as exit tickets the teacher can formatively assess.

I’ll admit that it can be daunting to find expert speakers. The pressure to find the perfect speaker can be an obstacle in advancing a PBL project from design to implementation. Luckily there are many ways to bring guest experts to your classroom, and many places to find them.

Diversifying Your Expert Speaker Pool

One of the ways I bring authenticity into my lessons and units is to be inspired by the careers my students are trying to explore. For instance, when I developed a PBL unit I called “Invention Convention Design,” I didn’t just ask engineers to come talk to my classes. I thought about the authentic assessments I was requiring of students, which led me down an exciting rabbit hole with a diverse group of experts.

Since students were:

  • Developing commercials and websites for their inventions, I invited publicists;
  • Prototyping their inventions, I invited artists;
  • Designing items using the science standards, I invited scientists, engineers, and physicists; and
  • Giving elevator pitches—very brief speeches—I invited speech and debate coaches from our middle school league.

I also involved these experts in helping to evaluate the students’ work—we all used the same rubric to give feedback on the various stages of the students’ projects. I invited experts in as stand-alone guest speakers, but I could have had multiple guests at one time, seated at interview stations, so they could field specific questions and share their expertise, which would provide students with different perspectives and ways into the same project.

I am unabashed about whom I ask. I always say to colleagues that I’m willing to ask my dentist’s cousin’s gardener’s wife, if that’s what it takes.

When we think outside of the box, experts may come to us in new and surprising ways. For my PBL called “Superhero,” I reached out to a friend at Cal Tech’s patent office. She sent out a mass email, and I scored a quantum physicist as an expert speaker, who later also became my friend.

Community Outreach

Another trick is turn to those organizations that are already funded to help you out but that might not know you need help. Many museums, theaters, and laboratories have federally funded educational outreach departments. But until educators reach out to them, they don’t know their assistance is needed. I’ve often found that such organizations are chomping at the bit to come assist in the classroom.

And don’t limit yourself to face-to-face meetings: You can set up video conferencing with experts in another town, state, or even country. That widens your pool as well.

Then, of course, there’s the pool made up of your school community. Start a list of the careers of parents, aunts and uncles, and siblings. You can keep this as a running list (perhaps as a Google document) so that other teachers have access and can add their experts to it as well.

As teachers, we have to remember that we don’t always need to be the authority. Instead, we can sometimes take a step back and be allies in our students’ learning while a visiting expert leads the way.

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