How to Implement Project Based Learning to Engage Students

Math teachers can take a lead role in forming interdisciplinary units.

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Project Based Learning

Over the past two-and-a-half years, I have enjoyed developing Project Based Learning (PBL) curriculum in mathematics on two fronts. One avenue has been for a national charter school system (the Henry Ford Learning Institute-HFLI) preparing middle school and high school math projects. Concurrently, over the past year for an online school (W-A-Y Program), I have helped develop lessons in the disciplines of algebra, geometry, Algebra II, and precalculus, also with interdisciplinary connections. Developing PBL units and lessons has been extremely rewarding for me, and, herein, I’d like to share the joy of PBL with other educators. 

So what is Project Based Learning? According to one often used definition, Project Based Learning is “instruction relating questions and technology relative to the students’ everyday lives to classroom project” (Tennoe, Henssonow, Surhone-2010). PBL provides a more complete approach to education than simply a traditional lecture. For instance, according to middle school math teacher Gabriella Meyers, students readily see the value of Project Based Learning: “I believe that the PBL model provides a more holistic learning experience where students are applying multiple cross-curricular knowledge in a real world scenario. Students are more engaged and exercise more, higher-level thinking skills when they are involved in a realistic setting for the application of the skills they are learning. PBL provides the answer to the question -"Why do I need to learn this?’.” 

Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jocelyn Farkas explains how the online program WAY utilizes PBL as well: "At WAY, project based learning is the vehicle for learning. PBL not only engages our young people in a constructivist manner, but also helps build self-confidence as the students have a choice and voice in what they do and how they do it."

One of the reasons schools have promoted Project Based Learning is because PBL strives to more actively engage students. Research often shows that students have difficultly relating their mathematical knowledge to situations outside the classroom. Project Based Learning specifically relates work to the real world. A great example is how the Henry Ford Learning Institute implemented PBL: “The original Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn was founded as a collaborative project between a global company (Ford), a world-class museum (The Henry Ford) and an intermediate school district (Wayne RESA),” according to Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom, Associate Director of Curriculum and Instruction at HFLI. “One of their primary goals was to create an educational model that better prepared students for the workplace. Leaders from Ford's workforce development division said they were looking for people who knew how to work well on a team, communicate effectively, and could solve problems creatively. Project Based Learning provides students with opportunities to do all three, and also helps students see the connections between what they are learning in school and what happens in the real world.” 

Other important organizations have embraced PBL as well. The NCTM Principles and Standards support inquiry based learning, which is an important part of project-based learning. Furthermore, within the last several years, many schools organized by PBL educators have received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to start holistic PBL schools across the United States. Such PBL focused schools include High Tech High, New Tech Network, EdVisions Schools, Envision Schools, North Bay Academy of Communication and Design, and Big Picture Schools.

People have been promoting PBL for some time. John McCarthy has been involved in Project Based Learning since 1994. Last year, I took a PBL workshop with him and Beth Baker (currently co-director of the WAY Program) that led me to create a “Personal Economics” PBL project integrating mathematics, business, economics, and English. McCarthy currently serves as School Improvement Consultant in Wayne County, Michigan and McCarthy supports PBL at local, state, and national venues. According to McCarthy, “Standards-Focused PBL is about making curriculum meaningful and engaging. It's also about developing 21st Century Learning Skills in students so that on graduation from high school (after an illustrious PBL experience since elementary) they have the tools--communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and innovation--to succeed in their lives in academia and the business world.” The PBL work that McCarthy and Baker started is based on the Buck Institute for Education, which is a major player with regards to PBL and 21st Century Learning.

Key components of a PBL unit include:

  •  Driving Question: The project is organized around an open-ended Driving Question or Challenge
  •  Standards-based focus
  •  Choice: Students pick an aspect of their project.
  •  End Product or Solution: The result of the work is an end product, such as a presentation, connecting to a real-world application
  •  Interdisciplinary: The project integrates multiple disciplines, such as math, science, English, and social studies.
  •  Teacher as Facilitator Rather Than Leader
  • “Need to know”/Inquiry based: Drive deep thinking, student interest and engagement

The following are some lessons with a mathematical focus that could be turned into PBL projects.

Project Based Learning Lesson Plans

Proportionality Using Labyrinths and Mazes

Students research labyrinths and mazes using the Internet, then design their own mazes based on their findings. One of these mazes is then chosen to be enlarged, and students are broken into groups to draw portions of the maze on butcher paper before coming together to combine them.

Patterns in Nature

Students look to nature to observe mathematical concepts. They research science and math topics like fractals, migration patterns, and fossils. Then, students showcase the models they make of these concepts.

Effects of Urban Growth

In this lesson, students explore the impact that urban growth in the U.S. has had on our society. Students break into groups to determine the cause and effect of population growth. They then make surveys, record results, and present their findings in a final project.