Project-based learning moves into classrooms

Project-based learning is gaining support in education circles

Students at The Ellis School use the Hummingbird Robotics Kit to explore STEM.

When it comes to classrooms today, students want more than the lectures and quiet classrooms of the past. They want technology to use as learning tools, they want to collaborate, and they want to work on projects that are relevant to their learning and the real world.

Through project-based learning (PBL), students achieve a deeper understanding of lessons as they investigate and attempt to solve real-world problems. Part of this approach’s appeal is its ability to impact students of all ages—kindergarten students can collaborate on and explore problems just the same as high school students.

Educators across the country are integrating PBL into their classrooms.

“It’s about getting away from the ‘perfect experiment,’” said Gary Garber, a physics instructor at Boston University Academy. Garber also oversees the school’s science and engineering lab interns at Boston University and is head coach of the robotics team.

(Next page: How Garber, and two other educators, leverage project-based learning)

“What’s going on? Too often they wonder: ‘Are my results right? Did I get the right answer?’ [PBL] is about getting away from that to thinking about what the answer means,” he said.

Garber uses Vernier Software & Technology products during experiments and lessons with his classes, but he goes well beyond simply putting equipment on each student’s desk or lab table. Instead, he distributes different equipment to students so that experiments can’t be done in the same way.

Students use the equipment, including sensors and probes, to explore real-world challenges and come up with potential solutions to those problems.

“I force variety—I want them to approach the topic or problem from different points of view. Why are some results different from others?” he said.

“Some of the equipment I put out there might be problematic,” Garber said. “It’s about getting kids use to the fact that failure is OK. That’s what real scientists experience all the time? And how do you do that in 45 minutes in the classroom? That’s where collaboration comes in.”

Steering students away from the idea of the traditional scientific method, which Garber said is more of an education school idea than a scientific idea, is important when it comes to helping students address science concepts in PBL opportunities.

“There isn’t one method for doing science. One of the big highlights of the Next-Generation Science Standards is that there are a variety of science practices—modeling, trial and error, and so on,” he said.

“The source of good science discoveries is good innovation and creativity,” Garber said. “We don’t need kids who have mastered the textbook—we need kids who are innovative and creative.”

Students take the lead

Dan Whisler, a high school life sciences teacher at Sterling High School in Sterling, Kan., who does extensive class projects with wind turbines and electric cars, presented his students with a PBL opportunity that quickly expanded across the state.

The school was selected to participate in the Kansas Wind for School program, which helps educate students about energy use and renewable energy resources and opportunities. Whisler asked his students to research how the Chevy Volt, an electric car, might compare to the pickup truck he owned.

Students analyzed how much electricity costs, how far the Volt can drive on its battery, and other real-world considerations such as the price of gasoline, length of commute, and charging station locations, in order to come up with a comparison of which vehicle purchase might make the most sense.

As they delved into research, Whisler said his students expressed a desire to actually test a Volt, which led to conversations outlining what data they would collect from it and what they might learn. Students developed a formal project proposal to present to the district.

Local businesses helped to support the project, and funding made it possible for the district to obtain a Volt from a local dealership when it became available.

Whisler installed a metered charging station in his home garage to track how much electricity the district’s Volt uses. Students record data including garage temperatures, because those impact battery performance, kilowatt hours used, and electric-powered and gas-powered miles. The district received another grant to install a metered charging station at school, increasing student access to data.

The project has expanded students’ understanding of what considerations might go into auto purchasing decisions, and has also taught them about energy awareness issues.

“I try to integrate as many subjects and skills into science instruction,” Whisler said. “Most likely, everyone is going to buy a vehicle at some point in their life.” Students connect knowledge built during PBL opportunities to real-world issues and decisions they will make as adults.

“In terms of energy awareness, we take electricity for granted—we expect to flip a light switch and have the lights come on,” Whisler said. “Students understand that there’s perhaps more to it.”

Whisler’s students also participate in the KidWind Challenge—a wind turbine design competition. Vernier also supplies wind and solar energy parts and kids for KidWind projects and challenges. Grants from local businesses enabled the district to purchase wind tunnel kits, which students use in classrooms to explore wind energy principles. Whisler attended staff development and training sessions at a local school consortium, and he trains other teachers to use the kits with students.

Much of PBL involves making sure teachers are comfortable, said Asia Ward, KidWind’s outreach and project manager.

“Teachers need to be comfortable trying something new,” Ward said. “Students are eager to explore new things, but it’s the teachers who are actually going to help the students understand how to apply these principles. We’re building tools that are accessible for teachers and students.”

Often, teachers don’t know how to implement PBL opportunities, or they become too nervous about using materials they must demonstrate or manipulate in front of students.

Making sure that teachers have access to training and learning opportunities to build their confidence will help them connect students with PBL tools and opportunities, Ward said.

PBL opportunities give students hands-on experiences that prove invaluable as they prepare for college or careers after high school.

“As a teacher, a test doesn’t necessarily show what a student has learned. Hands-on activities and the opportunity to give presentations to community groups do. That’s when students really start to demonstrate what they’ve learned—when you start sharing it with other people, that’s when you really learn it,” Whisler said.

Helping girls delve into STEM

Students at The Ellis School, an all-girl school in Pittsburgh, Pa., use the Hummingbird Robotics Kit from BirdBrain Technologies to explore STEM education throughout their academic careers.

“We really start to introduce the girls to computer science early,” said Lisa Abel-Palmieri. “At an all-girl school it’s even more important to find ways to engage them in STEM, particularly the more technical parts of STEM, like engineering and computer science.”

Beginning in 4th grade, students learn about computer science and use the Hummingbird Kit during teacher-guided lessons.

Students in 5th and 6th grades take year-long computer science courses, using the Hummingbird to learn visual programming before moving on to using SNAP, a drag-and-drop programming language.

Seventh and 8th grade students can take a mobile robotics elective. In high school, students will progress to the Hummingbird Duo, which BirdBrain Technologies anticipates will ship in December or January. The Duo expands on the basic kit via an updated controller. The Hummingbird website explains: “The new controller will be capable of an Arduino-powered standalone mode; to access this mode students will need to know how to write programs in the Arduino IDE (a text-based programming language appropriate for 8th grade and up).”

“We don’t just keep the Hummingbird inside computer class—we’ll work with teachers to use the kit that personifies something they’re doing in class,” Abel-Palmieri said. “Let’s say students have to illustrate a concept from a book they’re reading in English class. Some might use the Hummingbird to do that. It’s a nice way to create cross-disciplinary connections between classes.”

Students in high school take a number of courses involving programming. A creative programming class uses more advanced programming principles built upon what they have already learned in earlier years with the Hummingbird kits.

A high school human anatomy elective takes advantage of the robotics kit and lets students build a robotic arm. Students must diagram the arm, build and program it, and demonstrate that they know muscle systems and can explain movement and function.

Students also take a required class, Culture and Context, which explores mobile app programming.

“For girls, the Hummingbird is a really great kit because it uses peer programming, peer learning, and collaboration—it also provides a bigger context for why they’re doing this programming,” Abel-Palmieri said.

“Because we start students in computer programming at a young age, and because we engage them in middle school, they’re not afraid of it by the time they get to high school.”

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