George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

When School’s Out, PBL Opens New Doors to Learning

Out-of-school time should include project-based learning.

August 5, 2011

Project-based learning offers a host of benefits to youth during the academic day, but active learning doesn't have to stop when school's out. A new movement is underway to encourage PBL during summer vacations and after-school hours.

Making PBL part of out-of-school time gives youth new opportunities to become leaders, thinkers, and problem-solvers. Through projects that they help design, students get more engaged in their communities and add their voice to discussions about local issues. PBL is also proving to be a winning strategy for energizing after-school and summer programs. "We don't even have to market our program anymore. Students sell it to each other," says one after-school provider in Philadelphia, where 20,000 youth are now involved in PBL when they're not attending regular school.

"All our programs incorporate project-based learning," explains Karen Smuck Tylek, PBL coordinator for the Out of School Time Project at Public Health Management Corporation. Her agency manages the city-funded network of out-of-school-time programs. I first met Karen and her colleagues in 2009, when PHMC began offering professional development to help program staff better understand project-based learning and gain new skills as project facilitators. (Full disclosure: I was part of a consulting team from the Buck Institute for Education.)

It's exciting to see how far they've come in just two years. PHMC recently released a video describing the city's PBL journey and highlighting two program sites where youth are deeply engaged in projects that reflect their interests. One team of teens spent this summer planning a carnival for neighborhood children as a strategy to raise funds and visibility for a nonprofit cause they care about: supporting youth in foster care. In another program, children have put their passion for the Earth to work by writing a play they are producing that teaches about environmental issues.

Vinh Nguyen works with high school students at Bevilacqua Community Center in Philadelphia. "When teens come here and engage in projects," he says, "they are developing a lot of skills that they're not normally developing in schools. They are learning how to work together as a team, how to problem solve, and how to really accomplish goals that they're setting for themselves."

This powerful learning happens almost by stealth, another staffer explains, because youth are having too much fun to realize that they are engaged in serious learning.

This video offers a glimpst of two Philadelphia programs in action.

Making the Shift

Shifting from after-school activities to authentic projects challenges after-school staff to rethink how they work with youth (just as classroom teachers have to do when they start down the PBL path). Projects are likely to be different from "the way we've always done things," and change can be challenging.

The Philadelphia network has been strategic about sustaining its PBL effort with ongoing workshops, online resources, and other professional development activities. Shifting to PBL is not without challenges, Karen Smuck Tylek acknowledges. Staff turnover, which is common in out-of-school programs, and staff buy-in have been the two biggest hurdles. "We found that some veteran staff members were reluctant to try the PBL approach," she adds, "because it requires a different way of thinking about programming."

Instead of just planning fun activities for kids, staffers may have to learn more about the issues kids care about in order to plan student-driven projects. That might involve taking surveys, guiding discussions, or taking students out to investigate issues in their community. During projects, staff may need to learn new approaches for managing student teams, connecting youth with local experts, and planning showcase events where students share what they have learned or created. These skills may not be in every out-of-school staffer's toolkit, but they get better with practice.

Shifting to PBL during out-of-school time doesn't mean starting completely from scratch. Instead, popular activities can be remodeled into authentic projects. A few examples: Open gym can morph into a project in which students design community fitness challenges. Snack time might connect to a project about how food makes us healthy. Homework help might shift to a literacy project in which students produce digital stories that capture family traditions. Using the PBL framework, projects take shape with a driving question that sparks inquiry, engaging activities that take learning deeper, and a showcase event at project culmination.

In Philadelphia, ongoing professional development has been the best way to address the challenges that come with implementing PBL. Free workshops are offered throughout the year for out-of-school staff. Professional learning not only builds staffers' knowledge of PBL methods, Smuck Tylek says, "but increases their confidence and buy-in. They see the potential of PBL to be fun, engaging, and beneficial to their programs."

New Resources for Out-of-School Time

To help more communities bring the benefits of PBL to out-of-school time, a new online resource has just been launched by the U.S. Department of Education. You for Youth was unveiled last week at the national 21st Century Community Learning Centers Summer Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

You for Youth includes four online courses, one of which focuses specifically on PBL. The site is a portal to a variety of media-rich resources and interactive learning opportunities for the national out-of-school network. It features online professional development, technical assistance, webinars, and coaching opportunities for staff, as well as opportunities for participants to connect with colleagues from other communities.

If you work with youth in after-school or summer settings, have you tried using project-based learning? What works best to engage students and expand their learning experience? What are the challenges of implementing PBL in informal learning? Please tell us about your students' favorite out-of-school time projects.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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