Exploring Project-Based Learning

project-based learning stem education Aug 11, 2022

What is PBL?

PBL, or project-based learning, is an approach to learning in which students work as a team to solve a real-world issue. The problems are open-ended and allow for students to choose different routes when solving them, requiring them to apply various concepts and skills to their learning.

Students are given the problem at the start of the school year or semester, depending on the length of the project. From here, students determine the knowledge they already have, as well as the skills they need to build in order to solve the problem effectively and efficiently. Students are expected to produce a product or presentation that demonstrates their knowledge at the culmination of the activity.

This is different from completing a standard final project. Rather than completing a final project given by the teacher to show what students were taught throughout a unit, project-based learning IS the unit. Working on the project is the way in which students learn authentically, rather than through lectures.

PBL presents real-world issues to simulate problems students may encounter in their future careers. The goal is for students to develop the skills they will need to succeed in these endeavors rather than teach concepts they will not use.



In our recent post “What is STEM,” we discuss how STEM education itself is a problem-based approach to learning. When students learn to power an electrical circuit or develop and operate a robot, they are utilizing skills that they can apply in the future to solve real-world issues, rather than focusing on content they may not need.

One study examined the effect of PBL and STEM learning on students in Indonesia, where the education system is lacking. Because Indonesia is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is often surrounded by natural disasters. Students were challenged to find ways to improve the impact of these disasters through project-based learning. In doing so, their problem-solving skills, idea formation, and ability to research necessary information improved drastically. Further, students could use the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math skills they already had and apply them to their specific issues, reinforcing these concepts and demonstrating a need to learn them.

Engaging students in a challenge that directly affects them creates meaning and purpose. Students want to explore concepts when the topic is of interest to them. How often do we find that students who love math do not bring the same energy to a language arts class and vice versa? What if we always captured our students’ attention, even if the class is right before lunch or at the end of the day? So, why can’t we?


Barriers to PBL

While some schools successfully implement project-based learning in their school day, others do not. Many schools are departmentalized, meaning students go to math, language arts, social studies, etc., for a certain block of time, without these subjects cross-connecting. 

Additionally, sometimes when teachers attempt to create cross-curricular experiences, they are met with barriers. For example, I often had ideas to create “STEM challenges” for my students. In our school, some teachers taught language arts and history, while their partner taught math and science. I would work with my partner teacher to find a time that our students could work in teams and engage in this type of learning. However, student schedules, student services, school-wide activities, and lack of time, to name a few, all got in the way of making this a reality. The few times we were successful, the students were engaged in and enjoyed the challenge. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make this a reality as much as we needed to.


Why Do We Need to Solve This Problem?

As the Indonesian education study suggested, when students are provided a challenge that is important to them and can make a difference in our world, they are engrossed in solving the problem. Students use vital STEM skills, reinforcing the importance of learning certain concepts in school. Further, there are a plethora of world issues, and therefore we also have the ability to utilize concepts from other disciplines, including language arts, history, and music. We can bring value to concepts we teach when students can recognize the importance of needing to learn them.

We also need to provide teachers with professional development opportunities and the flexibility to implement this learning within their classrooms. While teachers are trained in science and math, we often do not provide enough training in technology and engineering to make true STEM learning a reality.

This is crucial because, in order to truly learn, students need to create, make, and solve. While sometimes we need to provide information through a lecture, we more often need to provide learners as many opportunities as possible to problem-solve on their own, while working in a team. It is important to recognize, though, that they will only build these skills if they are truly interested in learning. STEM learning IS project-based learning, and if we can increase the opportunities for our students to learn in this way, we will better prepare them to establish a successful future for themselves and our world at large.

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