Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Six Steps for Planning a Successful Project

Use these guiding principles to pull together projects with the time and resources you have.

March 15, 2010
Credit: Michael Warren

Sure, King Middle School has some amazing projects, but the Portland school has been refining its expeditionary learning projects for nearly two decades. David Grant, who guides the school's technology integration and curriculum development, has put together a six-step rubric for designing a project. He says Fading Footprints, which became a model for King and Expeditionary Learning Schools, doesn't take an entire school, or even a team of twelve, to plan and carry out; one or two teachers can tailor this one to fit their time and resources.

Six Steps to Planning a Project

The Fading Footsteps project is a twelve-week interdisciplinary ecology unit centered around the guiding question: How does diversity strengthen an ecosystem? Using this project as an example, see how King Middle School creates an action plan around each step.

Step 1: Develop a compelling topic that covers state standards, has an authentic connection to the local community, and provides opportunities for every student to do meaningful, independent research.

    How they do it:
  • When it came time to study ecology as part of the science and technology standard, King Middle School teachers agreed that a compelling topic seemed to flow naturally from their local environment. They decided to study indigenous animals that are endangered and threatened, focusing on the animals' habitats and why the animals are in danger.
  • A number of local experts visited the school to help kick-off the project; other wildlife experts took the students on an outdoor expedition to see firsthand how living things depend on one another and on non-living aspects of the environment.
  • It was a powerful subject that engaged the students in doing something with a real world value. Students selected the animal they wanted to study, researched its life cycle and habitat, learned why it was in danger, and identified possible steps that could reverse the animal's decline.

  • Step 2: Develop or design a comprehensive final product that each student will have a role in creating, and could be used by local residents or professionals in the field.

      How they do it:
    • The 1-to-1 laptop program was a bonus when it came to creating a comprehensive final product. Each student used a variety of media to report his or her findings, including writing, producing scientifically accurate field guide illustrations, taking digital photos, shooting video, and working on websites. After each individual project was completed, all students worked together to produce a single CD-ROM representing the entire ecology curriculum. The CD-ROM and their individual work were posted on line on the school website, along with additional resources, including a glossary of terms.
    • Students were motivated to produce a professional quality CD-ROM because the teachers had arranged to have the discs placed in Portland's elementary school libraries and to be on sale at the Children's Museum of Portland. In addition, the students' artwork went on display at the museum and at the Maine Audubon Society. In addition, students analyzed professionally published field guides.
    • Teacher teams designed and built an exemplar model themselves before assigning it to the kids to make sure it was possible to do in the time frame allotted and with the number of students involved.

Step 3: Involve professional organizations and professionals from the community to connect the academic study with the real world, and have students assume these professional roles during the expedition so they get a sense of what it would mean to be professionally engaged in meaningful work.

    How they do it:
  • Recruiting professionals began early on with teachers reaching out to various organizations and researchers for assistance and resources. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided information about the Endangered Species Act, pollution, habitat management and restoration. An expert from the Maine Department of Wildlife visited the school to talk with students. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife provided information on state species populations. The Allied Whale Program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, hosted a class trip.
  • Once they heard and saw how the experts do their work, the students assumed those professional roles for the duration of the project. They became investigators, researchers, artists, and policy advisers. One part of the project had students caring for salmon eggs with the goal of releasing the fish into the river after they hatched.

Step 4: Identify and organize the major learning resources for the expedition, and make sure they're available. (This one is critical and is often left out by schools).

    How they do it:
  • Well before all the pre-planning is done, teachers have to shop around so they know that there are enough developmentally appropriate resources to go around so every student has a chance to do meaningful research. If those things don't exist, you can be two, three or four weeks down the road on a project and discover there aren't enough learning resources for the students.
  • King Middle School avoided what could have been a frustrating experience when teachers started to map out a project to examine the effects of ship wrecks off the coast on the local marine life. They found out that there weren't enough sunken boats in safe locations for each student to conduct meaningful indpendent research.

Step 5: Coordinate calendars. (This may be the hardest piece of all.) Expeditions are interdisciplinary and require a lot of planning to ensure that each piece flows smoothly from one to the next. They require enough time for each component to be done well, for students to get time in the field, for experts to come in at the appropriate place, and for the final product to be high quality.

    How they do it:
  • Fading Footprints was a twelve-week unit. The final product was very complex; students couldn't be developing tech skills at the same time they were processing content information. The project was broken down roughly into three digestible, meaningful, month-long chunks.
  • The first month was dedicated to developing comprehension via direct instruction, reading and research, field trips to the Maine Audubon Society and the College of the Atlantic, and presentations from guest lecturers. All students received formative assessment during this time through journal checks, quizzes and tests, as well as interviews with teachers.
  • During the second month, students conducted independent species research and produced a prototype product.
  • In the third month, students worked on and refined their final projects. They also critiqued each other's work.
  • Tech learning was scaffolded out so students weren't learning the technology at the same time they were creating their individual final products and the CD-ROM.

Step 6: Plan a final experience or culminating event. Showcase student work to the public or outside of school.

    How they do it:
  • All students received a copy of the CD at the culminating event at the Children's Museum of Portland before their parents, community members, and experts. The CD is available in Portland's elementary school libraries, and was sold at the Maine Audubon Society and the Children's Museum in Portland. In addition, all of the original artwork in the CD was displayed at the Children's Museum.

Adapted from an article in SEED Packet: Spreading Educator to Educator Developments, by King Middle School teacher David Grant, based on King's six-step rubric.

(For more information on the Fading Footprints project, check out our article, "Laptops on Expedition: Embracing Expeditionary Learning.")

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