George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Setting Up Community Partnerships for Authentic PBL

A few tips for finding and working with partners to collaborate with students in hands-on project-based learning experiences.

July 7, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

PBLWorks is a leading provider of professional development and resources for project-based learning (PBL). Their Gold Standard Design Elements include public products, project work that students make public “by sharing it with and explaining or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.”

As STEAM professional development specialists, we take public products a step further by having our students “create something for someone.” We’ve found that when community partners collaborate with our students, it helps them to develop their knowledge and supports authentic work.

searching for a community partner

Identify potential partners by looking for local organizations, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, cultural institutions, professionals, universities, community leaders, or experts that align with the goals and themes of your PBL project. Consider the expertise, resources, or networks they can contribute to enrich students’ learning experiences. 

Make sure in your initial contact to introduce yourself, explain the purpose of your project, and express your interest in collaborating with them. Clearly articulate the potential benefits and impacts for both students and the community.

Keep in mind that community partnerships should be reciprocal and mutually beneficial. Here’s how to help select and build community partner relationships. 

Try using our Community Partner Brainstorm Sheet and Community Partner Request template to help you get started.

Research and understand partners: Conduct research to learn more about potential partners—their work, values, and areas of expertise. Understand how their knowledge and resources can enhance your PBL project and benefit your students. We focus on connecting with partners who have a genuine interest in education and community engagement.

Leverage networks: Use friends, family, coworkers, district administration connections, or references from other community partners. Explore online platforms such as LinkedIn; cold-call or email organizations; attend community meetings or events. We’ve found that once someone becomes associated with this type of teaching and learning, network connections contact them or send potential community partners their way.  

Align objectives: Clearly align and communicate your PBL objectives, your learning outcomes, and the role you envision for community partners. Discuss how their expertise, resources, or networks can enhance student learning and contribute to the success of the project. Seek input and ideas from partners to co-design meaningful project activities.

Working with the partner

Build and nurture relationships: Focus on building relationships based on trust and mutual understanding. Schedule meetings or discussions to explore shared interests, values, and goals. Engage in open and transparent conversations to establish a strong foundation for collaboration. Acknowledge and appreciate the partners’ contributions. Continuously seek ways to strengthen the partnership and explore new collaborative opportunities.

Support partner integration: Provide partners with the necessary support to engage effectively with the project; share project materials, timelines, and expectations. Offer resources to familiarize them with PBL pedagogy, assessment methods, or student expectations. Create opportunities for partners to connect with teachers and students.

fostering interactions and exploring opportunities

Planning a PBL unit: Ideally, a community partner is an essential part of the PBL unit planning. They help connect standards to the “real world” and ensure authentic and engaging experiences that meet the needs of your community partner.

Introducing a unit or challenge: While a community partner might not be able to help you plan an entire PBL, they can still suggest certain tasks for the students. Have a community partner present the driving question or problem that needs to be solved. This can come in the form of a virtual meeting, a letter, or a visit to your classroom to offer the challenge.

Arranging a consultation or class tutorial: There isn’t a more authentic way to learn a new skill than from the experts themselves. While teachers have their own expertise to offer students, lots of skills are better coming from the professionals who use them every day. These tutorials could encompass web or product design, authentic job roles, or other skills. The list is endless.

Giving an evaluation or feedback: For students to get the best feedback possible, use a community partner who’s an expert in an applicable field to help evaluate student work. This could be a panel of judges or individuals who work for the community partner. The  evaluation can be before the final presentation or a final conference for feedback with the students, which can be virtual or in person. Keep in mind that this would be in addition to the ongoing feedback from the teacher. Note: This evaluation can be even more meaningful if the community partner has been involved from the start, helping to plan and launch the project, and serving other necessary roles through the duration of the project.

Creating for an authentic audience (public product): To optimize the PBL experience and the connection with a community partner, students create a final product for their community outside of the school setting. There are various types of products that can benefit the community—different types of media, presentations, websites, and physical products, with the ultimate goal being authenticity and relevance. 

Community partnerships play a pivotal role in fostering authentic, collaborative, and rigorous project-based learning experiences. By connecting students with real-world experts and resources, these partnerships offer a wealth of opportunities for meaningful engagement and practical application of knowledge. Students not only gain a deeper understanding of academic concepts but also develop essential skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

Moreover, community partners provide valuable mentorship and guidance, helping students connect their learning to future career pathways and societal needs. As we embrace the power of community collaborations, we can help transform education and equip our students with the skills and mindset needed to thrive in an ever-evolving world. 

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  • Community Partnerships

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