STEM and Project Based Learning, a Perfect Pair!

PBL develops the critical thinking and problem solving skills that Common Core State Standards emphasize and that students need for success in college, career, and life.
Emily Garner Sumner

Project based learning (PBL) is a student-centric approach to teaching and learning. Typically, projects are focused on a real-world problem that students solve through research, exploration, experimentation, and the application of skills from across the curricula. Often, PBL concludes with students formally presenting their solutions to the problem. This hands-on method of learning actively engages students, which leads to a much deeper and lasting understanding of content.

PBL planning and prep—simplified
Teachers in Dysart Unified School District (AZ) have implemented PBL as part of their curriculum focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). On challenge with this shift is that PBL often takes a lot more planning and preparation to implement than a traditional lecture. One resource that Dysart USD has adopted is Defined STEM.

Defined STEM is an online program that provides educators with resources to create engaging, relevant, cross-curricular PBL lessons. Teachers find that using Defined STEM saves hours in planning time. According to Rachel Kelley, a fifth grade teacher in Dysart USD, “The best part of it [Defined STEM] is the variety of topics and projects that can be done. There are prompts that I would have never thought of that are very motivating to students.”

Kathryn Zanin, STEM Coordinator for Altar Valley School District (AZ) knew her teachers would love Defined STEM’s “performance tasks”, which are built from the UbD (Understanding By Design) framework. These tasks present a real-world problem to be solved within the context of a career/industry. Ms. Zanin also knew the students would benefit from the career based videos that frame each task, allowing them to see the task through the career lens. Each task contains “big ideas/understandings”, “essential questions” and “learning outcomes”, which outline what will align with the learning in the task.

According to Dr. David Bain, Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for Community High School District 117 (IL), “Most science curricula use the well known science careers, like doctors and forensic scientists. Defined STEM goes beyond those stereotypes and shows students a wider range of possibilities. Jobs like building rooftop gardens or a wind technician. This shows students real, every day uses of science.”

Expanding your comfort zone Because PBL incorporates skills from across multiple subject areas, many educators used to teaching a single subject have been apprehensive about using this learning strategy. And when STEM is the focus of the project, the nervousness of non-science and math teachers only increases.

Preston McKnight, K-12 Supervisor of Curriculum for Phoenixville Area School District (PA) faced this exact issue when he took steps to change the district’s approach to STEM. “The folks we were asking to engage with the curriculum weren’t necessarily all science-based teachers, so they had some understandable apprehensions about how it would fit into their lessons. If you’ve been trained as a family and consumer science teacher, that’s what you like to do and want to do, and we were asking them to do something different.”

However, using Defined STEM, Phoenixville area teachers have made a smooth transition to PBL and are comfortable with integrating STEM across the district’s curriculum. “Defined STEM is very user-friendly and lays everything out for our teachers, from lesson plans and standards alignments to interactive videos. So teachers’ apprehension went away very quickly,” Mr. McKnight said.

Every subject matters, no matter what subject is being taught
When Jason Braddock, Instructional Supervisor for Secondary Math and K-12 STEM for Mahoning Educational Service Center (OH), noticed that their current STEM solutions were leaving out big pieces of the puzzle, such as literacy and social studies, he found Defined STEM to be the best solution. “We really needed something that everybody could share across grade levels and subject areas,” said Mr. Braddock. “Defined STEM addresses the whole child. It takes everything they know in multiple subjects and helps them apply it to real-world situations.”

Students and teachers in the 16 districts that Mr. Braddock serves have embraced project based learning and are creating engaging and memorable learning opportunities for their students using the Defined STEM software. For instance, Braddock was recently invited to judge a cross-curricular competition that teachers had spun off from a Defined STEM project. Student teams were assigned a region in the United States, and they had to create a self-sustaining restaurant for that area. Nearly every subject area was involved, including:

• Social studies: Students researched the demographics of the region to determine what kind of restaurant would make sense for their customer base.

• Science: Students identified the compound and renewable energy sources they could use to cut back costs and carbon footprints for their restaurants.

• Math: Students came up with equations to set the most fair, profitable prices for their restaurants to charge.

• Choir: Students wrote a catchy advertising jingle to promote their restaurants.

• English: Students wrote the business model for their restaurants, as well as a pitch to investors and potential business partners.

“I was very impressed with the students’ creativity,” shared Mr. Braddock. “The kids seemed thoroughly engaged with the project and really did a nice job with it.” For him, this project was the perfect example of what makes Defined STEM so unique.

PBL engages learners of all ages
PBL and STEM aren’t just for middle and high school students. First graders at Congress Elementary School in Arizona are putting their critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills to work with cross-curricular projects developed by their teacher Emily Morse using Defined STEM. For Halloween, students were learning about pumpkins: how they grow, their colors and shapes, and engineering with pumpkins. “Before, when we did units on pumpkins, we read a lot of literature around and about pumpkins, but science and engineering was never a part of it,” shared Ms. Morse.

Now, in addition to reading about pumpkins and drawing pumpkins, students in Ms. Morse’s class work in pairs to build little towers out of gummy pumpkins and toothpicks. Frequently, she overhears conversations among her students that include such observations as “It’s falling down. We need a stable base.” According to Ms. Morse, “I see better work from them, more critical thinking, more thoughtful questions, stronger work.”

For many schools PBL and STEM have caused a transformation. According to Principal Stephanie Miller Congress Elementary is one of those schools. “That student excitement, the conversations that are happening around STEM concepts, the interest levels that students have now with some subjects because STEM is integrated in there, teachers thinking in new and different ways, it’s really exciting to see.”

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