Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Problem-Based Learning Tools: Problem-Based Learning Pedagogy and Strategies Are Used to Implement Project-Based Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Problem-Based Learning Tools: Problem-Based Learning Pedagogy and Strategies Are Used to Implement Project-Based Science

Article excerpt

A major aim of project-based science (PBS) is to develop students' thinking and problem-solving skills by allowing them to solve authentic problems. Students can engage in inquiry-based activities that require them to generate questions, design investigations, gather and analyze data, construct explanations and arguments in light of empirical evidence, communicate their findings, and make connections among ideas (NRC 2000; Minstrell and van Zee 2000).

One way of implementing PBS is to use problem-based learning (PBL), in which students formulate their own problems. (Editor's note: See "Project-Based Science: A Primer," p. 23 in this issue for more on PBL.) These problems are often ill-structured, mirroring complex real-life problems where data are often messy and inconclusive. In this article, we describe how we used PBL in a ninth-grade biology class in Singapore, where the socio-cultural context is different from the United States in some aspects. We discuss the tools, pedagogy, and strategies that we used during a unit on food and nutrition. Students took 16 weeks to complete their projects (while also completing other biology classwork).

Incorporating PBL into PBS

The features of PBS include the use of "driving questions" that organize and drive activities, investigations to answer these questions, artifacts that represent students' ideas and understanding, collaboration to share information, and technological tools that support students in learning tasks (Krajcik, Czerniak, and Berger 2002). Our use of PBS was based on these design principles, as well as the characteristics of PBL (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980; Gallagher et al. 1995), in which a problem acts as the stimulus and focus for student activity and learning.

Features of PBL include students initiating learning with an ill-structured problem, using the problem to structure the learning agenda, using the instructor as a metacognitive coach, and working in collaborative groups. Ill-structured problems are those in which

* the initial situations do not provide all the information necessary to develop a solution;

* there is no single right way to approach the task of problem-solving;

* as new information is gathered, the problem definition changes; and

* students are never completely sure that they have made the best selection among solution options.

Our students wrote their own problems based on what they were interested in investigating (i.e., their driving questions). Each problem was formulated as a multifaceted, broad, overarching problem statement that presented a scenario, and was written by students in the form of a narrative. Students identified the problems themselves, which were inspired by real-life experiences. Students asked questions based on the problem, and identified issues of interest that they wanted to learn more about. These issues were the topics and subtopics found in their problem statement. Sources of inspiration for students' questions stemmed from cultural beliefs, folklore, advertisements, the media, personal experiences, daily encounters, and the school curriculum (Chin and Chia 2004).

Stages of implementation

Our class of 39 students worked in groups of 4 or 5; there were nine groups in total. Students went through five consecutive stages, which are summarized in Figure 1. Students' project topics included nutrition and hair growth, dentition, eating disorders, slimming centers, betel nuts, ginseng, and nutritional value of insects. While the first four topics involved important universal nutritional and health issues, the latter three were of interest to this particular group of students. (Note: Slimming centers in Singapore are commercial enterprises that claim to help their clients lose weight through a variety of mainstream methods, as well as questionable and controversial techniques such as bio bodywraps, aromatic steam treatments, and lymphatic drainage. …

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