3 lessons on innovating in PBL

This Pennsylvania district built a Fab Lab and has been blown away by its success

After 28 years as a classroom teacher, administrator, and superintendent in rural, southwestern Pennsylvania school districts, I left the traditional school setting and began working for Pennsylvania’s alternative education system, serving at-risk and special needs students.

Many students struggle to learn and master concepts in traditional classroom settings. Without a hands-on connection, lessons can be easily lost and remain unhelpfully abstract. I firmly believe that project-based learning (PBL) is one of the best ways to solve this disconnect, so I applied to build a Fab Lab for students in Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1) region. We were chosen, and three years ago, in partnership with Chevron and the Fab Foundation, we launched a campus lab—accompanied by a mobile counterpart—to serve as a hands-on STEM learning center for students to experience and master high-tech tools and concepts. None of us predicted the success we’ve seen.

Students with long disciplinary records and attendance issues started coming to class because they enjoyed it. Those who were frustrated by typical lesson plans and lectures have found the Fab Lab to be a place where their unique learning styles are engaged. Academic progress in a safe, collaborative setting is encouraging students and helping to solve behavior challenges.

Developing this Lab has been a rewarding journey, and I’d like to share some of my biggest takeaways for implementing this PBL approach.

1. There are no shortcuts

If you’re thinking about initiating a shift toward PBL, you’ll need to build the proper relationships and invest time in the initial development. Start small. When I first identified PBL as something I wanted to bring to IU1, it required patience, research, and a leadership team to think through the options that would work best for our students. Our first success was a very small grant for an arts center where students could complete hands-on projects.

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