George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Connecting Across Disciplines in PBL

Here are three ways to set up project-based learning that involves more than one subject area, which is highly engaging for students.

May 8, 2024
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When seventh-grade students in Alexandria, Virginia, noticed mushrooms growing from under the baseboard in their classroom, their curiosity launched them and teacher Mary Breslin on an investigation into the causes and health effects of mold and fungus in school buildings.

After presenting their findings at a science fair, students wanted to keep working on policy solutions. That meant shifting their focus to learn in depth about how government works and, eventually, lobby their state legislature to pass a bill. Without a deep understanding of both science and social studies, and the ability to connect them, students could not have achieved the same results.

Their experience, one of many examples that education leader Ken Kay and I share in Redefining Student Success, shows what students can accomplish when they tackle real-world problems. It also underscores a challenge that teachers may face when projects don’t fit neatly into content silos.

Interdisciplinary learning can seem like a barrier for teachers who feel constrained by time, a prescribed curriculum, or a lack of opportunities to work with teachers from other disciplines. But the benefits can be profound, from increased engagement to academic gains. 

When students confront real-world problems, in school now or later in life, they may need more than one set of disciplinary lenses to see a complex issue or design a solution. Experts from Harvard Project Zero argue that addressing today’s most pressing issues—from environmental to social to economic—will require synthesizing knowledge from disparate sources.

A Continuum for Connecting

To help teachers think outside content silos when designing projects, I encourage them to start with problems that matter to students. A good prompt to encourage student brainstorming is “What’s a problem you care about that adults haven’t solved yet?” Thinking about the knowledge and skills essential to tackle a problem will lead to content goals, an important step in aligning projects to standards.

What if key learning goals are outside a teacher’s comfort zone or don’t fit into their planned curriculum? Instead of scaling back the project to fit a single content area, teachers can connect across disciplines with this continuum of connections: All-In, Just in Time, or the Handoff.

All-In: In this approach, significant learning goals for two or more content areas are incorporated in the same project. Elementary teachers can connect across content areas by bringing existing structures, such as literacy stations or math rotations, into project design in meaningful ways. (This video from PBLWorks offers a good example.)

The All-In approach is routine in schools designed for teaming (as in these examples from High Tech High) or in interdisciplinary courses like Humanities or Environmental Economics.

Some teachers create opportunities to connect across content areas even without formal structures for teaming or dedicated time for planning with colleagues. Here’s an example of an engaging project with clear learning goals for English language arts and history that grew out of two teachers’ shared interest in podcasting. Regular check-ins, common deadlines, and shared strategies for assessment will keep the project on track.

Just in Time: Some projects focus primarily on one content area but bring in strategies from another discipline “just in time” for students to reach a solution or create a final product that would have been impossible otherwise. For instance, in a chemistry project, students designed and conducted lab experiments about water quality. To analyze their data for a journal article, they needed to apply statistical methods. That was when the teacher brought in guest statisticians as expert consultants.

In another example, students had a choice of final products to demonstrate historical thinking for a National History Day project. When one team proposed writing a one-act play, however, the teacher hesitated. He knew from formative assessments that the students’ research and interpretation of history was of high quality, but he had no experience in theater. Just in time, the school drama teacher agreed to step in as a consultant.

The Handoff: Less often, a project might start in one content area (or grade level) and then get handed off to another class for a new cycle of inquiry. For example, seventh-grade students at a K–12 school designed a community garden that reflected local culture and heritage, meeting learning goals in science and social studies. High school computer science students then took up the challenge of programming an irrigation system for the new garden. Students were able to see how different ways of thinking and problem-solving had improved the final product.

In another case, science students presented their research projects to an art class, inviting students to create visual interpretations of the findings. The artwork was displayed at a public exhibition alongside abstracts from the science projects.

All along the continuum, encouraging students to reflect on the disciplines that shaped their thinking helps to cement interdisciplinary learning.  

Support that Matters

To take advantage of opportunities for connecting across content areas, teachers need to know what’s happening outside their own classrooms. Leaders can support teachers by giving them time to meet outside their content areas for project brainstorming. A schoolwide project calendar is another useful tool to alert teachers to upcoming opportunities for collaboration.

Students aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from interdisciplinary projects. Working with a teacher who has expertise in a content area different from yours “is a chance to be a learner again. That’s enlivening,” says Eitan Fire, a social studies teacher in Boulder, Colorado. His school encourages learning across disciplines, as in the History of Disease class he co-taught with a science teacher. “We both learned from each other.” 

Both Fire and Mary Breslin, the teacher whose students tackled classroom mold, have taken part in training from Earth Force, a nonprofit that supports teachers with tools and resources for environmental action civics. 

Having students more engaged in learning is another boost for teachers. “Students can burn out on lessons and worksheets about something like how a bill becomes a law,” Fire admits. “But if they’re learning in the context of civic engagement, focusing on local issues, it’s different.” 

His students recently began investigating the causes of pollution in a creek near their school. Fire invited a stormwater engineer to help students understand contributing factors, including the environmental impact of homeless encampments along the creek. That discussion led them to investigate causes of housing insecurity and income inequality as they considered sustainable solutions. As Fire acknowledges, these issues are complex and interconnected—but so is the learning. 

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