The Power of a Project

Project-based learning is an innovative, hands-on approach to creating a meaningful learning experience for 21st-century learners.

By Christen Amico

kids working on a project

Often discussed in conjunction with service learning, inquiry-based learning, or problem-based learning, project-based learning is becoming a very popular and highly-effective pedagogical tool for teachers. Although it refers to much more than the mere creation of a project, PBL is used in a multitude of ways and in a wide variety of educational settings. Most teachers and schools opt to employ PBL as a means of engaging learners in critical thinking and hands-on approaches to learning new content.

How is PBL Different from a Basic Thematic Unit Plan?

Although the overall purpose of PBL is the integration of multiple subjects into one project, it is not simply a bunch of lessons based on one topic, culminating in a project at the end. Here are some specific ways in which PBL differs from other types of teaching methods:

  • The project is meaningful and serves as the platform for the lessons.
  • The design and creation of the project stem from the pupils’ curiosity/ concerns.
  • The teacher's role is to guide learners through the project, rather than provide a large amount of direct teaching.
  • The project itself should extend past the classroom (last for many years, connect with another school, or impact the community).
  • Although pupils may complete individual assignments, the emphasis is on collaboration and cooperative learning.
  • Students interact with the project daily and lessons are integrated into the project.
  • The project is completed in class by the pupil- not the teacher or parents.
  • At the conclusion of the project, learners are given ample time to reflect and share their experiences.

Examples of Successful Projects 

The term project-based learning is used in many ways, and teachers have varying opinions on what exactly constitutes a project. One of the most common projects is the “Save the _____” where the class learns about a particular problem in the world (rainforest, whales, etc.) and work together to raise money and awareness about this problem. Here are some easily modifiable projects that take on a constructivist approach to learning new content:

  • Weather Station! Build two (or more) weather stations and keep one at your site and send the other one(s) off to another site. Have each pupil be a meteorologist for a day, where he records the daily weather data. Collect data for a few weeks. Then compare the data between your sites and help young scientists make discoveries about how weather changes from day to day and over time. Connections can be made to earth science standards, graphing and data collection standards, and even letter writing and literature such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
  • Animal Rescue! Consider rescuing an animal from a shelter as a way to help children understand the importance of caring for animals. The class would first need to research the necessary materials and costs before making this big decision. For the duration of the project, class members take turns feeding, cleaning, and playing with the animal. At the end, the animal can go home to live with one of the families. Connections can be made to life science standards, expository, and how-to writing activities.
  • Educational Music Video. Teachers and pupils can take any topic and make it fun by creating a music video. They can use drama, music, dance, props, posters, and costumes to act out and sing along to an educational song. Check out iTunes for songs on a variety of topics. The videos can then be uploaded (with parent permission) to the internet and be downloaded by other teachers to be shown in other classrooms! Depending on the topic, connections can be made to technology, script-writing, and the arts.

Getting Started

Because the majority of the project is dictated by the students, it can be difficult for teachers to completely map out the details. For some teachers it is challenging to surrender this control. The most important component to PBL is to help students make meaningful, lasting connections between the content that is being learned in the classroom and the world around them. To do this, begin with the essential questions/problems that should be addressed (these aren’t always fully answered). Here is one possible way to go about planning for a particular PBL:

  1. Establish a timeline. Give ample time to create, participate in, and share the project itself. Between four and eighth weeks is usual.
  2. Identify the problem to be solved or questions to be asked. Examples: How can we help save the rainforest? How does weather change? What would happen if we started a recycling program?
  3. Plan an introductory lesson to get everyone thinking about the problem in a way that will foster critical thinking. This may include showing a news clip about a current problem in the community or reading about a group of people that did something great in their community.
  4. Gather all necessary materials to create the actual project, make arrangements with other community members, and plan for field trips or guest speakers to talk with your class.
  5. Build a class routine for allowing students to engage in the project daily. Do they need to record data? Is there something that needs to be done (i.e. empty cans for recycling, feed the animal, conduct more research)?
  6. Plan for both independent learning activities and direct teaching throughout the project.
  7. Make sure to integrate lessons that target specific learning standards by engaging in applicable writing activities, reading related literature, and holding class discussions.
  8. Plan for a culmination activity. Possibilities include a school-wide sharing day or inviting parents to participate in the project. Decide if the project will remain at the site (recycling program) or will go home with student (rescued puppy).

More Project Ideas: 

PBL: Restoring Natural Species to a School Yard

In this complete PBL unit plan, pupils can learn how to plan, plant, and benefit from native species of plants. They begin by researching plants native to their community, designing a school garden, and actually caring for the plants including natural ways to prevent pests from damaging the plants.

Becoming an Entrepreneur

Fourth graders can spend time creating their own business; learning everything from marketing, to advertising and selling. They work in cooperative groups or individually to create a global market. This is a great opportunity to integrate technology.

Digital Photo-Telling of the Five Senses

Kindergartners can learn all about their five senses by taking digital photographs of the world around them and collaborating with classmates to create a digital storybook. This is a simple, yet effective project for integrating technology into a science project!

What Makes Our Community So Special?

After exploring the idea of what exactly makes up a community, children are choose a community (school, home, city) and create a project that will benefits that population. Cooperative group work is encouraged and technology can easily be integrated into this social studies project.