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Last year in my high school teaching, I was given the opportunity to serve on my district’s Transition Committee. This meant that, along with the other teachers on the team, I was to implement Project-Based Learning units in my classroom throughout the year, and also help the system transition into a Project-Based Academy system where students are divided into Career Academies starting in the 10th grade. I left at the end of last year to start on my graduate work here at Auburn University, but that year taught me a lot about the effectiveness of PBL and convinced me that it is poised to be one of the most effective teaching strategies of the 21st century.

The system partnered with the Buck Institute for Education (BIE, Click here) for this, and they definitely know what they are doing. In Project-Based Learning as set forth by BIE, you must set aside a minimum of 15 days (3 full school weeks) to do each project, because it isn’t meant to be a tack-on at the end of a unit, but rather the entire instructional unit itself.

Each PBL unit is set up a certain way:

  • The unit begins with a “kickoff” day that sets the stage in an exciting and engaging way for the task that students must do. This is the “hook” that makes them want to know more.
  • Along with the kickoff, each project has a central driving question that is carefully crafted to be a compelling curiosity that encapsulates the entire project and serves as the main theme.
  • Each student takes on a particular job, a real-life occupation, and the project is carefully designed to give them as much insight into what that occupation does and how this job goes about solving the problems set forth in the project. This is important because it lets students “try out” different occupations throughout the year.
  • The questions and problems that need answering are enumerated, but as much as possible about the project is left as open-ended as possible to allow free critical thinking and to simulate real-life problem solving.
  • Each student works in a small team of 3-5 (each student a different occupation, together forming the team), and bounces ideas off one another. Throughout the project, they keep a Professional Notebook, recording their findings and calculations along the way. This will also be summarized to make their final presentation.
  • Each team must present a 15-minute presentation at the culmination of their project. When possible, community members with relevant positions to the project are brought in to help evaluate their work and give advice. This also gives interested students a chance to ask questions about this occupation if they want to know more.

 

It is important to note that these projects are *standards-based*, with rubrics thoughtfully designed to grade them. At the beginning of the school year, with help from the BIE representative and the district team, I separated out my standards in such a way that 6 of every 9-week term would be normal classes, and the last 3 weeks would be project weeks, and standards were carefully picked to fit into each project. Therefore, I did 4 projects over the course of the year, and one of the projects was a dual-collaboration with an English and Science teacher, so students were working on the project in 3 of their 4 core classes.

I’ll briefly describe one of my favorite projects I designed.

Students were tasked with opening their own business and could sell any unique *product* (not service) they wanted, pending approval. In teams of 4, one student was the Loan Officer at the bank, tasked with the financial decisions involved with this venture. The second student was the Construction Contractor, tasked with designing the building under given constraints, including budget and size constraints. A model, either digitally, sketched, or physically was required. The third student was a Product Designer who had to design a unique item(s) to sell, including the material acquisition and cost, labor needs, how and where to display the item in-store,  and various other constraints. The fourth student was the general manager, who worked closely with the other 3 students, but also would develop sales, cost, and profit models, research similar companies in the industry, etc. All students were encouraged (but not obligated) to interview community members who held the same/similar jobs to glean insights and important information.

My actual Project Design document and pages I gave the students over time were much more detailed than this. By far, the hardest part of implementing PBL was the initial planning phase. After that, the students were the ones doing the work.

Classroom management was exciting to begin with, since the students didn’t really know what to do at first, but once everyone was into the swing of everything, all of my classes did wonderful.

To find more about PBL and get some awesome resources with templates and ready-made projects, check out the following from Buck Institute for Education:

Resources

Project Search

Store (They didn’t support this post by any means, but there really are some good, cheap books here for getting started with PBL.)

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