The PBL Launch Pad, Part One: Worthwhile Projects for High School Students

A project-based-learning teacher and coach writes about “the most effective tool for organizing content and motivating students to think hard.”

February 1, 2007

This is part one of a two-part article. Read part two.

Tenth-grade world history students interview Chinese immigrants and record their stories; ninth-grade physical science students design and strength-test mock airplane wings; junior English students research, write, and illustrate children's nonfiction picture books; algebra students of all grades investigate a public-transit problem and propose solutions to city officials; sophomore geometry students build scale models of museums they've designed; students across the grades in an environmental-stewardship class raise public awareness of a polluted river -- all are examples of academically challenging projects that also manage to engage the minds, hands, and hearts of most high school students across a wide range of abilities and interests.

What constitutes a worthwhile project for learners of this age group? What do educators mean when they say "project"? And what exactly is project-based learning (PBL)? Surprisingly, given how common the terms are, there appears to be no common understanding of their meaning, much less consensus about when a project approach should be the tactic of choice. It seems the PBL moniker may have become too big a tent by accommodating all methods related to hands-on learning.

Because this all-encompassing definition is obviously not useful, I offer a narrowed one appropriate for the high school level based on my nearly fifteen years of experience as a PBL teacher and coach. With a few cautions, I encourage my high school colleagues to give this teaching method serious consideration. It is the most effective tool I have found for organizing content and motivating students to think hard and produce work of which they are proud.

I define project as "an authentic performance-assessment task in which students must apply the knowledge and skills learned in class to solve a genuine problem outside the classroom."

The use of the word problem means no single solution exists and not all solutions are known. I find it helpful in developing a project to classify problems one of three ways: design a product, service, or system, improve one, or plan and stage an event. For maximum motivating power, the problem should be one adults face in a constructive field of human endeavor. When students tackle an actual problem in the community, by far the strongest learning occurs.

Three additional criteria are critical to successful projects:

1. Students must make or do something authentic in response to the problem -- research papers or multimedia presentations alone rarely qualify as useful solutions to problems in the world outside the classroom, although they may be valid components of the problem-solving process.

2. Students should have access to the same or nearly the same kinds of tools and technology adults use in similar situations.

3. Student work and thinking should be evaluated against adult performance standards applicable to the particular field, such as prevailing industry standards. It is strongly recommended that students receive feedback on their ideas from subject-matter experts (SMEs).

What do these projects have in common? Authenticity. Each invites young adults to consider a current problem in our world and propose ways to address it. I find the more realistic and less contrived a project is, the more students care about it and, consequently, the better their focus and effort. At the high school level in particular, authenticity is critical to learner interest. It trumps topic for motivating power. Students tend to be more engaged when they know they're doing the same kind of work adults do than when they're given a fictitious, facile, or trivial undertaking on a topic they may find more inherently interesting.

For various reasons, sometimes practical, sometimes test driven, many teachers compromise on authenticity. Either

  • a) the problem itself is a make-believe scenario that does not actually occur anywhere,
  • b) the products/performances students make are not the kind adults would consider a serious response to the problem, or
  • c) the benchmarks to which student work is compared are significantly below or unrelated to those to which adult work is held.

Although the projects described in the accompanying table vary in their degree of authenticity, even at their most contrived in terms of bona fide product (for example, the wing-design project -- structural engineers don't use papier-mâché -- and the museum project isn't an actual construction prospect), each project nevertheless presented students with an existing problem and required them to go through the same processes of thought and action adults would use in similar situations.

Most critically, each project raised the stakes for students -- pay attention and try hard -- by virtue of having their work evaluated by SMEs. Students care what these people think -- even when the SMEs are five-year-old kids who cannot read yet -- and will work hard for their good opinions and praise. They value the honest feedback on the elements that matter most to them: "Did you like it?" "Did you understand it?" "Did I come up with an original idea?" "Does my work show insight?" "Is this good enough to be useful?" "Did I succeed in changing your mind?" "Did I succeed in making you care?" "Have I done something that matters?"

Is there a place for projects that don't meet the authenticity criteria? It depends on what one seeks to accomplish. If teachers are after the kind of heart-and-soul effort from students that criteria-meeting projects bring out, there is little wiggle room. Settling for less means having to find other ways to motivate students and evoke their concentration, revisions, and best work. I haven't yet found other instructional strategies that bring out the same kind of behaviors from all students -- especially from the majority of learners outside the small group motivated by grades and/or college-admission requirements, or the even smaller group motivated by intellectual curiosity.

The SME Is Key

Probably the best way to ensure that a task will have a high degree of authenticity is to collaborate with individuals from the community or from local industry who apply the concepts and skills students are learning in class in their line of work. It may take a little effort to find appropriate SMEs, but it is easier than many think. I find that surprisingly few people turn down the offer to work with young people. Here is how the teachers who supervised the projects described in the accompanying table found their SMEs and the impact the experts had on both what and how students learned.

Oral History Project

The world history teacher who conceived the oral history project contacted an Asian museum near the school, because China was a region of study for her tenth graders. It turned out the curators had wanted to collect the stories of Chinese immigrants and welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with high school students.

Through this kind of project, students not only learn about China, modern Chinese history, the local Chinese American community, and what motivates people to leave their homeland, they also learn about the historical method of inquiry and about the elements of effective interviewing, good storytelling, and compelling presentation, as well as something about the business of running a museum. One of the curators was perhaps only a decade older than the students; his passion for history was clearly infectious, possibly inspiring a historian or two in his young audience thinking about what they might do with their lives, or what kind of life story of their own they'd want recorded some day.

Wing-Design Project

A science teacher codeveloped the wing-design project with a structural engineer who had responded to a mass-email call for SMEs the principal sent to her many aviation-industry contacts. This big-hearted engineer was essential to designing a project that was authentic but still doable by ninth graders without any engineering background or math skills beyond some algebra and geometry. He built the wing-test apparatus and was instrumental in rounding up a sizable posse of fellow engineer evaluators for the culminating assessment.

Through this kind of project, students must apply their understanding of the principles of physics they're studying, must be inventive, and must learn to collect useful data in order to make sound decisions about how to improve their product. They learn about engineers' problem-solving process of design, test, and redesign, and learn that there is no such thing as failure, only opportunities to keep learning. Students get to ask engineers about their daily work and, through their own hands-on experience, can more readily picture themselves pursuing (or know why they don't want to pursue) similar work someday.

Children's Picture Book Project

A teacher enrolled in an evening course on writing for children conceived the children's picture book project. The teacher met several local authors, and from their writing groups she collected a group of SMEs, including illustrators, willing to review students' manuscripts.

In this project, English, social studies, science, and/or art students not only learn a great deal about the topic they write on and illustrate, they also learn about the classic components of good narrative, and why it is unexpectedly challenging to make a publication-worthy picture book. They also learn about the business end of making a living in an artistic venture -- the hard realities of supply, demand, marketing, and rejection letters, and the rewards and joys of creating, revising, and persisting.

Transit-Dilemma Project

A staff member's friend, who was a graduate student of urban planning, conceived the transit-dilemma project. He was able to arrange for college credit for his collaboration with a PBL coach and math teacher on developing the project. The teacher used the task to develop his algebra students' ability to justify decisions on the basis of data. Through this kind of project, students not only learn how data is important to good decision making, they also take notice of the invisible building blocks of community, including the citizen participation necessary to developing an inviting and workable place to live -- both important and lasting life lessons.

The city officials to whom students presented were genuinely interested in student ideas and perspectives. Some projects, such as this and the picture book, are highly interdisciplinary and can be shaped to work in an individual discipline or an integrated block of disciplines. For example, a social studies teacher could use the transit dilemma to focus on map-reading and map-making skills and the profound impact of transportation systems on a community. This could lead to an investigation of sea and air travel and interstate and intercontinental travel, and might engender a deep understanding of the geographic factors and community decisions that directly shape our neighborhoods, employment options, and lifestyles.

The Museum-Design Project

The museum-design project was conceived by two geometry teachers, one of who lives in a city known for its museums. Finding an SME to provide occasional feedback to students as they worked on their building designs and to evaluate their final products was as simple as visiting a nearby American Institute of Architects office, perusing several portfolios, and making a few phone calls.

In this project, students not only apply what they've learned about math formulas, they also learn about the elements of good design, such as proportion, similarity, and symmetry. They learn about the challenge of designing within space and budget parameters and of matching the form of a building to its function. They also learn what it takes to inspire a client's confidence. As with the transit project, students learn to see what has gone largely unseen to this point in their lives about the various aspects of a well-designed space for living, working, and playing.

River-Cleanup Project

A teacher with a passion for environmental stewardship and art conceived the river-cleanup project. A large, toxic river was in the school's neighborhood. The teacher found numerous SMEs at a local volunteer coalition involved in various aspects of cleaning the river, including one group developing a work of consciousness-raising art to be floated on a barge.

In this, the most authentic type of project possible, students are simply presented with a problem adults are working to solve and are invited to invent and try out their own responses or join in ongoing adult efforts, learning via apprenticeship. A wholly student-directed project requires the most intrepid kind of teacher and a course or setting in which the teacher can relinquish control of learning outcomes to a great degree (for example, a general elective, independent study, an individual learning plan, or a senior project).

For student-controlled projects of this order, the teacher must be extremely flexible, organized, and competent with classroom management. He or she must help provide SMEs, resources, and learning supports of various kinds as the need arises and must develop different ways to assess each student endeavor. It is a time-consuming and nonlinear approach and is obviously not for the PBL novice, but, in my experience, the rewards are unmatched. It typically results in some of the most astonishingly original and excellent work from students, unlocks latent passions, and awakens a genuine desire to learn. Such a project often leaves students with profound and permanent learning. Many are changed, noticeably matured by the experience.

Underlying Beliefs of PBL

To be effective in an academic setting, a project should not be an add-on to spice up a unit. Projects should derive from teachers' beliefs about what is most useful to learn, how learning happens, and how one can tell when it's happened. PBL is a set of beliefs about curriculum design, instruction, and assessment. If you disagree with the following, the project approach is probably not for you.

Beliefs About What Is Most Important to Learn

Information Use: The kind of thinkers and actors our modern democracy and economy need are not just ones who know how to collect defensible and useful information, from both primary and secondary sources; more importantly, they must know how to use it to inform decisions and actions.

Problem Solving: A learned process involving both creative and logical reasoning.

Methods of Disciplined Inquiry (as applicable): The scientific method of determining physical laws and probable explanations for phenomena via hypotheses and testing; the historical method of determining what most likely happened via collecting multiple accounts and/or artifacts of an event; the mathematical method of determining the rules governing shapes, numbers, and their relationships via deductive reasoning; and the various methods of critique in the literary, visual, musical, and performing arts.

College and High-Tech-Workplace Prep: In our world and our workplaces, which are constantly shape-shifting due to new technologies, these are no longer mutually exclusive (if they ever were), and the majority of students need the skills required to succeed in both arenas.

Beliefs About How Learning Happens

Applied Learning: Abundant research from cognitive science and education, added to what we know from our own experience about how we've grasped or mastered complex ideas and skills ourselves, makes it clear that application of new knowledge is required in order to truly understand and retain it (use it or lose it). This is true for the majority of learners, the college bound included.

Beliefs About Assessment

Performance Assessment: Tests of information recall and process skills are valid for evaluating those abilities but are not valid for measuring depth of understanding or multifaceted thinking ability such as problem solving. Making fair and meaningful judgments of such competencies requires learners to show what they can do with new knowledge. Through the products and performances they create, students reveal what they know and what they haven't yet fully grasped.

As a teacher's or staff's core belief system, the project approach, if adopted, should guide all decisions from what courses to offer, whether to integrate disciplines, the length of class periods, and instructional materials used to the layout of classrooms and design of new school facilities.

This is part one of a two-part article. Read part two.

Editor's Note: Educational consultant Eeva Reeder passed away in August of 2010 at the age of 53. We are grateful for her many contributions to the field of project-based learning and to Edutopia, and she is greatly missed.

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