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A World of Project Ideas (You Can Steal)

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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One of the advantages of project-based learning is the flexibility. PBL is an effective instructional strategy within individual content areas as well as across disciplines. It's engaging for young learners and teens alike. Good projects can be short term and tightly focused, or expansive enough to require months of inquiry. The sky's the limit -- which can be a challenge for teachers designing their first projects.

Fortunately, you don't have to start from scratch. By borrowing good project ideas from other teachers, and adapting them to fit your context, you can get off to a faster start.

Draft on These Ideas

Some 600 educators spent the past week thinking hard about project design during the PBL World conference in Napa, Calif., sponsored by Buck Institute for Education. Getting peer feedback early is a key strategy for good project design. That meant conference participants were sharing their project ideas and driving questions at the formative stage, then revising them in response to feedback (just as students improve their work during PBL).

Here's a sampling of driving questions at the rough draft stage, along with suggestions about PBL planning to fire up your thinking:

Who were the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in terms of impact upon today's society?

Notice the phrase, "most influential." This embeds critical thinking into the project because it prompts students to develop criteria and then make a defensible argument for why they selected a particular leader. Imagine the wide range of products students might produce to tell the story of a particular leader. That's a good sign that students will have voice and choice in the project, deepening their engagement.

How can we use our knowledge of math to convince our families, our school, and our community to go solar?

This question sets up a real-world application of math and science. Imagine where this might lead: mathematical models of future cost savings; comparisons of prices for different solar materials; analysis of weather patterns and predictions during different seasons. Students might want to consult with solar experts to get feedback on their proposals. There's an authentic audience, too (families, school, community), and the need for students to make convincing arguments, pitches, or campaigns to "sell" their solar plans.

How can we make life sweeter in our community?

This one's deliberately provocative, causing students to ponder what "sweeter" means. The idea is to have students read about both fictional candy makers (i.e., Willy Wonka) and real-life philanthropists who have made their money producing sweets (i.e., Milton Hershey). Then, they'll research and recommend opportunities for community involvement in their own hometown. Imagine the reading and writing opportunities embedded in this project idea, along with the real-world connections to ensure relevance. Sweet, indeed!

How can we design a watercraft that maximizes both load capacity and speed?

Here's a good example of a design challenge, with authentic constraints built into the driving question. Good opportunities to engage with experts in engineering and water sports. Plus, imagine the fun learning ahead during the prototype and test phase.

How can freshmen be heroic for others?

Here's an idea to kick off the new school year. Imagine having ninth-graders learn about the hero's journey through literature and then document their own feats of heroism as they embark on high school. There's an empathy-building piece to this question, too ("heroic for others"), embedding social and emotional learning into an academically rich project.

Want even more PBL ideas to play with? How would you modify these to engage your students, address your content, and ensure meaningful, memorable learning?

  • Are robots friends or foes?
  • How do stories from the past define who we are today?
  • What new monument or museum should be built in our city to enhance the lives of our citizens and visitors?
  • How can we create a more sustainable and efficient modern ecosystem?
  • How can we manage scarcity?
  • How can we create "farm to table" at our school during the winter months?
  • How can we build community through art?
  • How can we make getting around in the winter more safe and convenient?
  • How can we prevent E. coli from entering our swimming areas?
  • I what ways can I change the injustices I witness?
  • What's the fastest and cheapest way for me to get to school on time?

Resources Galore

More great resources from PBL World are available in a Google+ community. Join the PBL World community to watch inspiring keynotes and download resources to help you with your own PBL Journey.

Which project ideas are you thinking about borrowing? Share your thoughts and ask for feedback in the comments section below.

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Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Thanks, Laura! Center for School Renewal has some terrific resources. This publication is a good reminder that real problems have always had a strong pull when it comes to student engagement. These days, however, technology enables students to connect with experts and audiences--around the world or in their own backyards. That makes real-world projects even more compelling.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

I like your idea about asking students to project the implications of their decisions into the future. That's going to get them thinking about cause and effect, change over time, etc. You might think about giving them choice about how they want to share their thinking, too. Imagine students producing futuristic videos, graphic novels, illustrated maps, or short plays to share their predictions.
On the scarcity topic, you might have students make presentations about their proposed solutions, or debate pros and cons of different ideas. Get them to think critically and support their arguments with evidence, and you'll be well on your way to a strong project experience.
You'll find lots of resources to help you get started with PBL here at Edutopia (just search for PBL), and also at the Buck Institute for Education,
Good luck, and let us know how your projects turn out!

reconociendo's picture
Education can be an enabler for quality of life

Wonderful project! Here is my question: How can we guide learning to be less about succeeding monetarily and more about living well, understanding who we are and who we want to become in our community(ies), small or global, to be truly happy?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Reconociendo, that sounds like a great driving question for a teacher's project. :-)

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

What Samer said. That's a great question. When I was visiting Parker Charter in Devens, MA years ago, the essential question for the year was, "What really matters?" Now *that's* a project you can really sink your teeth into!

Holly E.'s picture
Holly E.
A 2nd grade teacher in an affiliated charter school in Los Angeles

I am finding the Google+ link a dead end... Anyone else?
Where can I find all these amazing ideas?
Thank you!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Holly, thanks for the catch. We fixed the link, and it should now be working.

Martyn Steiner's picture
Martyn Steiner
Head of Senior School and Science Teacher

Some great suggestions that have inspired me in a lot of different ways!

A few of them strike me almost as 'thunks' (the robots as friends of foes, for example)! It's very interesting to me that for these questions are described as projects, whereas I have tended to conceive of the project as the work towards the outcome. I would have thought of these driving questions as the spark that ignites the project, rather than the project itself. I love them, but it's not absolutely clear to me in some cases what exactly the students would be doing as the project.

I wonder what your thoughts are on that? Is the project the question, the process or the outcome (or something else - or all three?)?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Martyn! I think you've really nailed something with that question and, honestly, I think it's in the eye of the beholder (sort of). Where you choose to go with the ideas is totally up to you and will, most likely, look very different from what another teacher might do. In fact, you might find that the same idea could lead you to a variety of different projects. (I also think one of my favorite things about PBL is the way it leads to so many different but related pedagogical choices.) For me and the teachers using Critical Skills (the PBL structure we teach at Antioch), the "project" is the thing thing the students create to solve a problem AND it's the process by which students create the thing AND the content that they're using AND the skills/dispositions they're practicing. I know that other teachers have different stances and the great thing is- so long as they're working for their students- everyone gets to be right!

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