STEM and Project Based Learning – 6 Tips for Student Success

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a great way to take STEM concepts and apply them to a real-world problem. Technically, Project-Based Learning is known as a teaching and learning method in which students explore multiple concepts, ideas, and solutions around a real-world problem or challenge.
PBL incorporates standards-based content with a real-world challenge so students can use what they have learned, investigate into concepts further, and create real-world connections with what they are learning in the classroom. Naturally, STEM concepts fit into this framework quite well. For example, if you have been exploring the solar system and technology that allows people to live in space, students may tackle a problem like, “How might we help people live on Mars in the future?” If your child is learning about introductory chemistry as well as the effects of humans on the environment, your child may go through a challenge like, “How might we create a household cleaner that is also safe for the environment?”

Here are 6 tips to help you incorporate STEM into PBL and make it a great experience for your students:

  1. Choose a challenge that will capture student interests and decide what STEM concepts you would like to include. Write them all down and see where there is a natural fit. One simple tool that I love to use is me think through what fits together is an old-school venn-diagram. Forcing concepts in with a problem that does not actually appear in real-life can make it challenging for you to manage, and will also make it difficult for your students to explore solutions that will lead them in many directions. I love these resources from Edutopia to help you create the right challenge for your students.
  2. Incorporate standards as much as possible, but don’t force it. PBL experiences are so exciting for our students as well as those facilitating it. Adding as many standard-based concepts and points for our students to investigate or incorporate into their solution may seem like a good idea at the time but it works best if it’s a natural fit.
  3. Choose a challenge that will lead students to form many conclusions. One of my biggest learning experiences during my first PBL programs is that the students’ solutions should be varied. The goal of PBL is to first, make it real. Second, structure it in a way that allows students to go in many different directions. If your students all end with the same solution, you risk your students feeling that there was actually a right answer and a wrong answer. Using a problem that is too narrow can also confine the directions your students may go in. My favourite resource for setting up challenge that will lead to many directions can be found here on Stanford’s d.School website.
  4. Provide a process or set of phases/steps that students should follow. One of the most overwhelming factors in PBL is that the many directions your students go in can be difficult to manage. It can also be difficult to assure yourself that students are getting the the right depth in their investigations. I like to provide a road map to my students that outlines 2 points: First, what steps are we going to follow? Second, what is the criteria that should be met when in each step? I prefer to use the Engineering Design Process since most students have been exposed to it in science. This is also a great framework from ASCD. Always remember to refresh them on the process and define what each step is meant to accomplish.
  5. Frame the problem for your students. Giving your students context will help you get the experience off to a good start. You don’t want it to be too broad so it confuses your students in where they should start their explorations; but it shouldn’t be so narrow that it will lead your students all down the same path. Here is a great resource on framing a problem from Stanford
  6. Have your students share AND record their thinking. Whether you provide a document that students will fill out during each stage of their PBL experience or if you have students reflect on their thinking at the end of each day, it’s important that it’s captured along the way. First, it will help your students when it comes to presenting their solutions and explaining how they came to their conclusion. Second, it helps create an atmosphere of collaboration. I like to have each group share their insight at the end of each step to give everyone a voice, but also widen each group’s perspective if they become stuck.

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This article was written by Erin Carmody, an experienced educator, consultant, and Content Manager at STEM Village.