We discussed constructivism a while back: in a nutshell constructivist teaching methods hold that students build knowledge through their experiences, rather than through instruction.

The key concept is active learning, which dovetails neatly into today’s topic where I will share with you three incredible Project Based Learning (PBL) case studies, that I hope will inspire you to be more ambitious in designing, developing and implementing PBL in your classroom.

What is PBL?

Project Based Learning refers to a teaching method that requires students to engage in sustained, long-term projects, where they explore and examine targeted sets of questions, challenges and problems throughout the project. Gifted PBL practitioners can find ways to include a cross-section of curricula and learning outcomes into one project. Key factors of PBL include:

  • Genuine and Authentic Issues
  • Real-world Research and Experiment
  • Self Driven Learning
  • Active Learning
  • Mentorship
  • Peer Collaboration and Assessment

3 Awesome PBL case studies in action

Since project based learning is awesome, here are three awesome case studies of PBL in action:

3 Awesome PBL case studies

The Hunger Games

Mary Mobley (English) and Michael Chambers (World History), two teachers at the Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas designed a project for their sophomore class recently with exceptional results.

Key to the success of a PBL is its design, it must — if it is to be used as an ongoing method — be able to successfully meet State standards, and purely through engaging in the project students must be able to pass a State standard assessment.

At the outset of the Hunger Games project, the teachers ensured that students were aware they would be assessed on the following World Studies and English standards:

  • Understanding the causes of the global depression
  • The response of governments to it
  • The rise of totalitarianism
  • Analyzing moral dilemmas across cultures in works of fiction
  • Making complex inferences from literature, and
  • Writing personal response essays.

Elements that helped make this PBL initiative a success included:

  • Workshop with other teachers to check on content and learning outcomes
  • An “Entry Event” that introduced the project to the class, where students could agree on and define the final objectives
  • A “Need-to-know” list — determined and agreed on by the class and teachers collectively; this is the predefined list of learning objectives the class agrees on for the project.
  • Public presentations — groups were required to actually present their findings not only to peers, but also parents and other teachers.

Find a full set of resources on this project, generously provided by Mobley and Chambers here.

The Ice Castle

STEM School Chattanooga, Tennessee is a PBL-specific school that has committed wholly to the PBL model; and while student assessments remain aligned to the State’s standards, they are established via a PBL-oriented rubric comprised mainly of tests and quizzes, projects completed and products produced.

One good example of a PBL project at this school was the Ice Castle, one of the displays produced by a project initiated by teacher and PBL-coordinator Michael Stone in the FAB Lab.

After reaching out to local businesses for actual business-challenges, Stone set a project for his students where they needed to design and construct holiday-themed window installations for a local power and electrical utility company. One of the projects was particularly challenging, ending up being a behemoth of an installation at over 9 meters deep. Students designed the individual Plexiglass “ice” bricks in CAD and printed every one individually on the school’s 3D printers.

The demands of the project had interesting outcomes: one student, known for her fastidious attention to homework, and who had always demonstrated leadership had a difficult time adapting to an environment adults in the working world know all too well: team-work and compromise. Her teacher, Michael Stone recalls her saying,

I’m only good at school, I can’t make anything that actually matters!

Stone had to coach her through her the fear of moving from an abstract world of textbooks and essays, into the real-world which has consequences. The experience convinced him, more than ever, that PBL is an absolute necessity if we are to produce students that demonstrate not only academic, analytical skill, but also have tenacity, creativity and no small amount of gumption and courage in the face of either intellectual or emotional challenges.

Mission to Mars

The Grayson School in Pennsylvania is an independent school specialising in providing an accelerated academic program for gifted students. Recently their 3rd grade class “travelled” to Mars during a 8-week project-based learning module designed to stimulate development of cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge of communication, engineering, math, design, nutrition, astronomy and space.

By challenging the group with a simple premise: “We want to go to Mars, and explore it, what must we do?” the class decided, as a group, what the next steps were.

Step One: a space station. Structural engineering came into play as students conceptualized and designed the station, including a central command module, medical module, science operations module, navigation module, and a botany module. The space station was then physically built using those old favorites from the elementary school teacher tool box: cardboard boxes, duct tape and zip ties.

Step Two: The class then decided they needed Mars rovers to explore the new terrain. Using littlebits and GoPros, a number of prototypes were designed and built. The class also decided that perhaps experimenting with the rovers on Mars would be too risky, and decided they required time to train and practice with the rovers.

Step Three: Nutrition. Based on a single suggestion — the class agreed that they needed to setup a hydroponic garden to ensure fresh food on the space station, additionally agreeing that expert input was at this point required, teachers arranged for expert instruction, after which the group designed, and experimented with a functioning hydroponic garden.

Step Four: Physical preparation — students spent significant time in the school gym, preparing physically for the rigours of space travel.

Step Five: action stations. The module included a full 3 week “live” simulation of the mission with the group divided into ground control, and space module groups with various roles, which they rotated. Roles included:

  • Commander
  • Botanist
  • Medical Officer
  • Navigator
  • Science Operations
  • Communications
  • Photo Analyst
  • Exploratory Rover Operator
  • Meccano Operator

It is clear that this project was deeply immersive, cross-disciplinary and controlled to a large degree by the students themselves. It is a supreme example of the power of PBL, and my own take out is that it also sounds like a hang of a lot if fun for all involved — and isn’t that the very best way to learn. Read the full story here.

Conclusion

There is a large amount of information and inspiration around PBL on the internet — and the truth is it’s possible to get a bit sidetracked by the fun and fluffy elements, and miss perhaps some of the harder pedagogic aspects and the need for rigour when designing projects so that they remain on course to meet your State’s learning standards.

I would suggest starting your further reading on the topic here because project based learning is indeed an awesome way to learn.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear about your PBL successes in the comments.

Author: Susannah Holz

Susannah has years of writing experience. She would have liked to be forever a student, but life had other things in mind. So NEO is the perfect place for her to address topics about e-learning and ed-tech for schools.