Magazine article Technology & Learning

Project-Based Learning: A Primer: When Students Are Challenged to Get to Work Solving Real-Life Problems, the Whole World Becomes a Classroom. Here We Offer a Guide for Getting Started. (Cover Story)

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Project-Based Learning: A Primer: When Students Are Challenged to Get to Work Solving Real-Life Problems, the Whole World Becomes a Classroom. Here We Offer a Guide for Getting Started. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Walk into team teachers Mike Smith and David Ross's interdisciplinary classroom at Napa New Technology High School in California and you will see students at work--writing in online journals, doing research on the Internet, meeting in groups to plan and create Web sites and digital media presentations, and evaluating their peers for collaboration and presentation skills. This setting and these types of activities have a name and a purpose. It's called project-based learning, and it's designed to engage students and empower them with responsibility for their own education in ways unheard of in traditional classrooms.

What is Project-Based Learning?

In project-based learning, students work in groups to solve challenging problems that are authentic, curriculum-based, and often interdisciplinary. Learners decide how to approach a problem and what activities to pursue. They gather information from a variety of sources and synthesize, analyze, and derive knowledge from it. Their learning is inherently valuable because it's connected to something real and involves adult skills such as collaboration and reflection. At the end, students demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge and are judged by how much they've learned and how well they communicate it. Throughout this process, the teacher's role is to guide and advise, rather than to direct and manage, student work.

What It Looks Like

PBL means learning through experiences. For example, high school students design a school for the future and learn advanced math concepts and engineering along the way. Elementary students study single-cell organisms in order to provide data to researchers in a lab. Others build and race electric cars and learn about energy efficiency. Many projects focus on environmental concerns, such as testing pollution levels in local waters and researching methods for cleanup and then reporting findings and strategies for improvement to community officials. What do these projects have in common? All engage students through hands-on, serious, authentic experiences. They also allow for alternative approaches that address students' individual differences, variations in learning styles, intelligences, abilities, and disabilities.

Raising Student Awareness

The real-world focus of PBL activities is central to the process. When students understand that their work is ultimately valuable as a real problem that needs solving, or a project that will impact others, they're motivated to work hard.

Ed Gragert, director of iEARN, which offers PBL projects that address local, national, and global issues, believes that collaboration, interactivity, and a clear outcome that "improves the quality of life on the planet" really speaks to kids. "By demonstrating that they can make a difference in even a single life, students are motivated and empowered to carry their experiences into lifelong community and global service," he says.

In addition to teaching core content and raising awareness, PBL projects train students to take complex global issues and break them down into specific local action steps. For example, the Schools Outfitting Schools program contributes to international efforts to make education available to girls worldwide. By working to provide supplies to one school in Afghanistan, students see how they directly affect the lives of individuals. And Afghan students contribute as well by helping kids in the United States become aware of their culture.

The Role of Technology

Technology enables PBL. Students use tools such as word processors, spreadsheets, and databases to perform tasks like outlining, drafting essays, analyzing numerical data, and keeping track of collected information. E-mail, electronic mailing lists, forums, and other online applications facilitate communication and collaboration with the world outside the classroom. The Web provides access to museums, libraries, and remote physical locations for research. …

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