George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning

Fostering Confident Problem Solvers

How one teacher uses project-based learning to empower her students to see themselves as agents of change in society.
A teacher discusses a project with a small group of students.
A teacher discusses a project with a small group of students.

The population I serve is mostly at-risk students. Many of them will settle for the minimum, and most will preface any task with a comment about how they’ve never been “good” at school.

I realize that means they’ve likely had limited opportunities to explore their passions and produce products without definitive criticism. My mission is to mentor students through the process of finding their own potential and passions through project-based learning and real-world application, and that is what sparked my most recent implementation, called Change Makers.

Our students are going to graduate high school and face major social issues. We don’t have to look far to see these issues—in fact, it can be quite frightening to scroll through social media or listen to the news. However, students should not be frightened—they should feel empowered to make a difference, and Change Makers allows for that.

Using Real Problems as a Context for Learning

Change Makers projects address a real-world social issue and encourage the five Cs—collaboration, creation, critical thinking, communication, and, perhaps most importantly, confidence. Students are allowed maximum voice and choice in a) their selection of a real-world social issue to address; b) their methods of sustained inquiry to discover how, when, and why the issue became a problem; c) their method of reflection throughout the process of the project (e.g., journal, blogging, video blogging); and d) their possible solution to the problem.

In this process, students are provided with examples of previous students’ projects and a teacher-generated model. My role as teacher-facilitator is to guide students toward communication with an outside group or agency through email, telephone, face-to-face discussion, and so forth. I also encourage students to explore credible sources and to utilize various means of presentation to demonstrate their public product. Students may, for example, opt to use a green screen to record a short film, or make a presentation to a group of people.

For students to complete the project, they must demonstrate knowledge of their chosen social issue; document collaboration with a community member (i.e., via telephone interview, email, or face-to-face meeting); detail an idea to solve the social problem (creation of an organization, program, etc.); and provide next steps (e.g., “What should be done next?” or, more creatively, “If you were in charge of dealing with this issue and you suddenly left the job, what would your replacement need to do?”).

Two Examples

These projects allow for maximum voice and choice, and my students have been able to produce some phenomenal projects. One student felt that animal cruelty was out of control here in Houston, so she researched the problem and contacted the local humane shelter to gather an understanding of how many animals with neglect in their backgrounds enter the shelter. She looked at which areas in Houston have the most reported incidents of animal cruelty. Then she designed a program that would operate like Child Protective Services for animals. When I asked her if she had ever had the opportunity to create something like that project, she said no. What’s even more astounding is that this young lady had previously come to campus with her hair over her face, a quiet voice, and a presence of trepidation. She left my classroom holding her head high with greater confidence, and she viewed herself as a change agent in society.

Another student explored human trafficking in the Houston area. She collaborated with an organization called Elijah Rising, and even participated in the organization’s van tour of highly probable trafficking areas in the city. She decided to create a PowerPoint slide show with embedded hyperlinks to videos and images and presented it to the entire student body. After the project, she decided she had an interest in criminal justice or social work because she felt empowered to reach people before they become victims of human trafficking.

Feedback and Assessment

Assessment of the Change Makers project is embedded in the process. Students work on the projects at their own pace and are continuously giving, receiving, and using feedback to improve their process and fine-tune their products. I’m a facilitator who conducts ongoing check-ins with the students. They also gain useful feedback from their peers. This feedback process involves communication and deliberate discussion.

Even at the point of presenting their projects, the students receive positive, constructive feedback for improving their project should they decide to take it a step further after fulfilling the classroom requirements. Ideally, students should finish their Change Makers project feeling not as though they’ve completed an assignment that can be discarded after meeting the course requirements, but rather as having laid the groundwork for what could become a lifelong mission and purpose in life that will bring about positive change in society.

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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Thank you for this very encouraging article. Our students have varied backgrounds and frequently when counseling could help, it is not available. Real life positives, such as PBL , real life applications and Open Source experiences working with mentors provide a personal process of involvement that validates the student as a bonafide agent of positive accomplishment. Participation in a situation where their creativity and effort is honored could be a brand new for many students who have experienced neglect and trauma at home and failure in their school life. Recognition as a valued team member give students a much needed status to support their learning with optimism and purpose. And society certainly needs our resource of motivated young people making positive change!

Angela Mullennix's picture
Angela Mullennix
Educator, Leader, Lifelong Learner, PBL Advocate

Thank you, Melanie, for your thoughts. I am glad that you share similar sentiments in terms of growing and encouraging young people to make a positive difference in society. I truly believe that PBL is a viable means of outreach to the at-risk population, as well as to all students of all ages. Again, thank you for your comments!

Andrew Weber's picture

What an interesting perspective on how project-based learning can be used to overcome the "I can't" mindset of a student who has not had the opportunity to experience success. I agree that tapping into passions and interests can be an effective way to reach these students, as it directly allows for authentic learning based on the real-life applications you mentioned. I have found that once students have been given the "tools" of determining source credibility, they can pretty well select a real-world social issue to examine outside the context of the classroom. This year I had an 8th grade social studies student research access to education in North Korea, which resulted in quite remarkable findings. Thanks for sharing!

Angela Mullennix's picture
Angela Mullennix
Educator, Leader, Lifelong Learner, PBL Advocate

Most definitely, Andrew. Allowing a student to explore content area through the lens of their passions often prompts that student to continue that exploration beyond the classroom. This is such an invaluable opportunity for students who may otherwise never have the opportunity to consider their passions and make the connection that they really can do something powerful to make an impact.

Nancy's picture

Awesome article , thanks Angila . I wonder if I can email you about pbl and STEAM ?

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