George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Grappling with Messy Problems: Students Role Play to Find Solutions

An Illinois high school uses an innovative method for finding answers.

July 1, 1997

Students at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) don't shy away from problems. In fact, problems are an important feature of the curriculum at this three-year residential public high school. A problem-based approach to teaching and learning, modeled on a strategy originally used in medical schools, presents students with a "messy" problem for which, as in life, there is no simple answer.

At IMSA, students assume the roles of doctors, scientists, historians, or other stakeholders as they grapple with problems such as: "Should the Park Service reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone Park?" Students become "apprentice investigators," using knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines and employing appropriate technologies to develop solutions. They also have many opportunities to work with professionals in their fields of interest, both within and outside the school.

Though IMSA is a competitive-admissions school that serves students who display a high aptitude for math, science, and technology, the Center for Problem-Based Learning, located at the school, provides materials and workshops for other educators nationwide interested in implementing this approach to learning for their students.

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  • 9-12 High School

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