Project-Based Learning

Emphasize Real Problems to Boost STEM Learning

Interested in creating more student-driven learning experiences, especially in the STEM? Check out these resources and ideas.
April 20, 2015

Problem solving is at the heart of engineering. No wonder, then, that engineering teacher Alexander Pancic leverages his own problem-solving skills to improve his students' learning experiences at Brighton High School in Boston, Massachusetts.

"I've been trying to get my students to make the step, when they encounter a problem, of asking, 'What do I need to know to try to solve it?'" Students who are accustomed to doing worksheets, Pancic says, "get used to having everything they need to know included in the problems. Life isn't like that. You encounter real-life problems and have to figure out, what do I need to know? How can I find out? And then, how do I apply it?"

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Teachers interested in creating more student-driven learning experiences, especially in the STEM fields, are likely to benefit from Pancic's strategies and the resources he finds useful.

Learning from Authentic Challenges

Pancic's teaching approach has evolved since he discovered a resource called PBL Projects. Developed by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) with funding from the National Science Foundation, PBL Projects presents a series of 19 real-world challenges from the high-interest STEM fields of advanced manufacturing, sustainable technologies, and optics and photonics.

Multimedia case studies set the stage for inquiry by introducing students to authentic problems -- not simulations. Some emphasize troubleshooting while others focus on design. For example: retrofit a client's aging building with solar panels, or design a portable, effective light treatment for newborn jaundice.

"All the challenges are authentic, problem based, student driven, and developed in collaboration with industry partners," explains Fenna Hanes, senior director of professional and resource development for NEBHE and principal investigator for PBL Projects. Since launching the resource in 2006, she and her team have expanded the offerings in response to educator and industry interest. The free resources, field-tested by teachers, are being used in middle school, high school, and college classes, building the pipeline of students interested in STEM careers.

To support teachers in making the shift to more student-centered learning, PBL Projects includes online resources for educators plus face-to-face professional development. Pancic, for example, first learned about PBL Projects by attending a workshop in the Boston area. The timing was fortuitous -- he was just developing a new engineering elective for Brighton High.

Finding the Right Fit

Pancic has been selective about which challenges to use with his students. Some sound interesting but don't connect to his content. For example: how to ensure that airline pilots are not injured by laser pointers. "That would be great for physics," he says, "but that's not what I'm teaching." Others have limited appeal for his urban students. "I thought they'd get interested in an engineering problem about cranberry bogs, but my kids know nothing about farming. They couldn't get past that [lack of background knowledge] to get interested," he says.

A windmill challenge, on the other hand, addressed appropriate content and also proved engaging to students. It helped that they could go visit the actual installation site and talk with engineers who had worked on the project.

Pancic has used the PBL Projects structure to design new challenges of his own. He especially likes the "whiteboards" feature of the site that walks students through various problem-solving strategies. "They can see that there are patterns to this. The process starts to feel 'official' to them -- not something I'm making up off the top of my head. Once they see that I'm talking about a tried-and-true approach," he adds, "they're not so apprehensive about moving into a space they're not used to."

When Pancic started introducing STEM challenges to his engineering students, he quickly realized that PBL calls for genuine collaboration. "We do group work in school but don't focus that much on how to work well as a team." In engineering, a field where Pancic spent many years before shifting to teaching, a project team might include someone responsible for engineering, someone else focusing on finance, and another team member responsible for regulatory issues. "Everyone's got a specialty. You're expected to bring that expertise to the project -- and rely on everyone else's expertise," he says. In most K-12 settings, he adds, "We're not teaching that."

Pancic has scaffolded his students' learning experience by adding specific lessons in collaboration and effective brainstorming. He's looking for more opportunities to expand, such as having students present their solutions to subject-area experts.

Other teachers who have used the PBL Projects resources report similar shifts in instruction. A high school physics teacher, for example, said many students "are used to a more passive method," and needed to get used to directing their own learning. Another high school teacher, who teamed up with a university class to work on an electronics problem, said students "like to be presented with problems that are real, not a textbook experiment."

A middle school teacher's goal in introducing PBL was to "provide students with just enough individual/group support so they did not give up, but purposely did not provide them with a feeling of comfort. After they realized I was not going to give them the solution, they settled in and worked quite well together."

Doubling Up on Learning

As Pancic has gotten more comfortable with the problem-based approach as a teacher, he has expanded his curriculum with new challenges. His latest innovation: "double" projects that help students see how concepts transfer and connect from one situation to the next. The first project might be smaller scale, with teacher modeling and demonstrations; the next, more open-ended and student driven.

For example, students recently completed an introductory bridge design project. Their next challenge: design shoes, "and use what you've learned about bridge design to distribute the weight." As part of the design constraints, shoes had to have a two-and-a-half-inch heel made of cardboard that would support at least 70 lbs.

Listening to classroom conversations, Pancic can hear students make connections from one project to the next. That's a big win. And so is the persistence that he increasingly sees students exhibit. "I used to hear students give up if they couldn't solve a problem in 30 seconds. It didn't seem to bother them. Now, they're willing to struggle to figure things out, and they don't automatically go to Google for an answer. That's a fundamental shift," he says.

If today's students are going to be ready for whatever challenges are ahead, Pancic adds, that's a shift they need to make. "We know they are going to face problems that we haven't faced before. We need people ready to respond to whatever comes at them. That's what PBL is all about."