Connecting PBL, Technology, and STEM/STEAM

At the core of education is the never ending quest to find a way to ‘do teaching’ better so that students are successful in life. The continuous evolution of the craft is impacted from all aspects of society.  But there are two primary arenas that are currently influencing the content and mechanism for delivery of instruction: 21st century success skills and digital technology.  These two arenas are prevalent constructs of Project Based Learning (PBL), STEM/STEAM and SAMR.

Let’s first consider PBL.  Its reiterative and reflective nature allows for cohesive content delivery through the integration of technology. PBL serves as a connector of different content areas which are revised and reflected through a practice of 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and self-management.  Additionally, the integrated content is imported and facilitated through digital technology tools for the purposes of inquiry, collaboration and publishing.  All of it combining to create significant impact on student outcomes, making learning happen. PBL and technology exist in partnership.  And, the connection is deep. Technology does not exist to merely serve as a transmission vehicle for content objectives. Technology within PBL permeates the practice by guiding students through learning opportunities as they inquire, produce and interact with the content in the real world. PBL’s pedagogy prioritizes authenticity and analysis which cannot come to fruition without being in a symbiotic relationship with digital technology: a conduit to the real world.

How can this partnership between PBL and digital technology be most successful?  The connection between PBL and technology is, no doubt, essential but the association must be purposeful, meaningful and echo common learning objectives.  The SAMR model created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura is an eloquent approach to this crossroad of PBL pedagogy and digital technology integration.  First, SAMR eliminates content specificity and emphasizes cross-curricular patterns and commonalities. This matches PBL’s aspect of connecting different content. Both foster cross-curricular collaboration by teachers.  Both open up the window for an expanding student voice. Second, SAMR reinforces the PBL practices of revising and reflecting by promoting frequent reconsideration of practice by the teacher in order to optimize use of technology in pursuit of student success. Reconsideration, revision and reflection are vital from both the teacher’s perspective and the students’. This practice fosters another avenue for student voice and promotes learning that progresses as more student-driven.  Finally, the SAMR model has levels or steps that perfectly mimic Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. I’ve created the table beyond to help visualize the connections between Bloom’s Technology and the SAMR model.

Table 1

Connections between Bloom’s Taxonomy and the SAMR model

Bloom’s Taxonomy SAMR Model levels Digital technology platforms
analyze, evaluate, create Redefinition publishing platforms (ex. voicethread)
Modification collaborating platforms (ex. padlet)
remember, understand, apply Augmentation communication platforms (ex. Google docs)

Bloom’s Taxonomy is directly relevant to ensuring rigor, especially when learning actions in a PBL unit are correlated to higher-order categories (Boss, 2014, p. 67).  There is an evident web of connections between PBL and technology through SAMR as stated above. And, the weaving of digital tools will guarantee more effective PBL teaching practices, project design, and student learning goals.

It’s hard to imagine that the idyllic partnership between PBL and SAMR could get any better. PBL, alongside SAMR with its with digital technology offerings, has the priority of engaging students through solving a real-world problem or a driving questions which will result in a public product/presentation for a real audience. In an exemplary situation, PBL employs SAMR and exploits digital technology to exercise students’ voice/choice, to practice revision and reflection and to finetune 21st century success skills.  However, at the center of a Gold Standard PBL is a two-pronged student learning goal:

  • Students learning academic content
  • Students acquiring success skills

This is where STEM/STEAM enters the picture.  STEM/STEAM injects the academic content. STEM/STEAM gathers a combination of content (science technology, engineering, art and math) that traditionally has been often isolated.  STEM/STEAM is designed as a way of learning that resembles real life. STEM/STEAM reverberates the objectives of PBL by promoting critical thinking, collaboration, communication and real-world exploration. The characteristics of a great STEM/STEAM lesson include:

  1. Focus on real-world issues or problem
  2. Guide by the engineering design process
  3. Immerse students in hands-on inquiry and open-ended exploration
  4. Involve students in productive teamwork
  5. Applies rigorous math and science content
  6. Allow for multiple right answers and reframe failure as a necessary part of learning

Weaving STEM/STEAM into the PBL/SAMR network solidies the goal of students learning academic content.  PBL provides the technique for STEM/STEAM content delivery. PBL, in a SAMR partnership, is the interface that brings real-world authenticity to STEM/STEAM lessons.  

In an ultimate, perfect education world, the amalgamation of PBL, SAMR and STEM/STEAM would come together to guarantee that students are successful in life.  But, it’s not that simple. In practice, each of these areas of educational transformation are approached by educators in varying stages of evolution in their craft.  Some will be very comfortable and able to embrace digital technology full force. Others will have evolved to be able to collaborate in content areas different from their own. The beauty of teaching is that not all units or lessons must conform to the highest level of Bloom or the top step of the SAMR.  Success can happen all along the spectrum. And this journey – for both teacher and student – is where the learning happens.



Website links



Boss, S. and Krauss, J. (2014). Reinventing project-based learning: Your field guide to real-world projects in the digital age. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Buck Institute for Education.  21st Century Skills and the Workplace. Retrieved on July 16, 2018 from

Gorman, M.  Essential Connections of STEM, PBL, and Technology Integration… What Would Dewey Think? 21st Century Education Technology and Learning.  Retrieved on July 16, 2018 from connections-of-stem-pbl-and-tech-integration-what-would-dewey-think/.

International Society for Technology in Education. ISTE Standards. Retrieved on July 17, 2018 from

Jolly, A. Six Characteristics of a Great STEM Program. Education Week. Retrieved on July 16, 2018 from

Lamar, J., Mergendoller, J. and Boss, S. Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements. Buck Institute for Education. Retrieved on July 16, 2018 from

Puentedura, R. Ruben Puentedura on the Impact of the SAMR Model. Common Sense Education. Retrieved on July 16, 2018 from education/videos/ruben-puentedura-on-the-impact-of-the-samr-model?page=1.


Reaction to global PBL examples

Unit 4 – As you explore the global PBL projects – iEARN, ePals, GLOBE, Global SchoolNet, Flat Connections etc. – share what you found interesting and why those specific projects, PBL vehicles, tasks, and products appeal to you.

It was evident that the variety of a PBL unit design options is amplified by the incorporation of the World Wide Web.  Internet integration of PBL projects can be as simple as online sharing of project idea as we found with the BIE Data Base of PBL and with New Tech High School PBL Projects; both giving magnificent offerings of tried and true projects. But the classroom’s perimeter is truly expanded and provides global outreach like no other opportunity when the student’s interaction in a PBL project that is digital in nature.

The six global PBL projects that we learned about this week have a myriad of positive outcomes.  Two accomplishments that are near and dear to my heart are:

  • intercultural awareness
  • making a positive change in the world

The opportunity to learn about the life conditions and experiences of another student in an entirely different part of the world is priceless.  And, the exchanges described in these global projects were even more authentic because it went beyond student-to-student interactions, many also included communication with community experts providing feedback.  

A project that I considered interesting can be found through the iEARN site called Nature’s Global Zoo.  From the onset the challenge of saving animals who are at risk of becoming extinct can be very appealing to many students.  Students participate with classrooms around the world which generates interactive collaboration involving design, critique and budget management.  Students also learn to develop trust, and expand their language skills. The resulting products are a blend of this collaboration and the developing skills of the students as they

  • learn to design and create their zoo website
  • present their project at a global youth conference (virtually)

This project also has students divided into roles:  zoologist, financial advisor, publicist, and architect.  I found this particularly interesting because it connected back to a previous concern/challenge that I had shared about PBL execution.

Another global PBL that I found interesting was  ePals, but not so much for the reasons listed above.  ePals provides a Pen Pal exchange platform which can connect students with other classes from around the world.  This was appealing because it seems like an avenue for adding global exchange to my classroom almost immediately without the full implementation of a PBL project, and can possibly lead to developing relationships which would facilitate the introduction of a future PBL project.

Exploring exemplars of project based learning

My school year ended on June 4th with a district-wide collaboration day where teachers from differing content areas and grade levels met to brainstorm and develop potential ideas for incorporating Project Based Learning (PBL) into our curriculum.  Since that day I’ve bounced between moments of great thrill and excitement for participating in a PBL project to moments of stress and anxiety when I contemplate the amount of planning and preparation for a proper PBL project.  How will I have time to design a PBL? What are the steps for designing a PBL project?  As I read the literature and take in the videos about PBL, I appreciate that PBL is a valuable educational approach because students develop deep content knowledge along with the skills of critical thinking, problem solving, time management and collaboration.  For me, as a science teacher, PBL echoes the scientific method; it seems experiential and experimental. But I need to learn more about how to design, plan and implement a PBL project.  I found it very beneficial to explore three case studies on PBL.

  1. “More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!” – Diane Curtis, Edutopia 
  2. “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning”– Sara Armstrong, Edutopia
  3. “March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration” 
    – Diane Curtis, Edutopia 

Although these three examples are very different in content and delivery, there were numerous circumstance and design principles that were common within all three cases.   From the onset each case was driven by immense student interest and ownership.  Students working on “More Fun Than a Barrel of…Worms?!” selected the main topic of worms for their project.  The students had ownership.  Each of the three cases framed the project to address an authentic, real-world problem (question).  In the case of “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning” students tackled the question of how do you design a state of the art high school in the year twenty fifty on a particular site?  The teacher, along with volunteer professional architects from the community collaborate with the teams of students throughout the PBL project.  This involvement by the community was another common thread in each of the three cases, ranging from a letter exchange in the “March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration” to a competitive presentation by the geometry students of their final architectural proposals.   Finally, another commonality among all three cases was that these student-driven inquiries were each closely tied to the educational standards, and learning was ensured in each case through multiple forms of assessments.

The roles that the teachers and students took on in these cases were also similar.  The teachers after extensive planning and preparing of the project act as a “guide on the side”.  They established a classroom which was like a workplace avoiding taking over control, scaffolding tasks with benchmarks and organizers, and monitoring progress continually.  The students collaborated extensively.  They worked as a team through variety of tasks including observing and recording data, testing and revising, communicating and making decisions.

The mere fact that these students were eventually accountable to a larger audience or the general community served to maintain student engagement and transfer of knowledge/skill.   This was taken to a whole other level with case of “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning” because the element of competition was involved.  Geometry students waited anxiously at the architects’ final meeting to learn which team had developed the best design for a school.  Students valued the win; students valued the feedback.  This caused students to be vested, and effective apply what they were learning in geometry class to their project.  Sometimes engagement is achieved when the connection is closer to home.  In the case of “More Fun Than a Barrel of…Worms?!” first grade students selected to work on a PBL project exploring cystic fibrosis because it was a disease affecting one of their classmates.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of the Journey North data-bank used by “March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration” example.  ( Not only do students follow live butterfly migration, but they also add their own personal observations.  This free technology enhances student learning by allowing the learning to contribute to real-world data and transforms the experience for the student because now s/he is making an authentic contribution to their community.  Also available through the Journey North data bank is live satellite coverage so students can incorporate geography along with the science.  All three example cases incorporated various mainstream technology such as web-based research, digital presentations, spreadsheets, and word processing to facilitate organizing notes, preparing presentation, and recording research.  I think as students use the ever-expanding technological resources to represent their learning, the quality of their work increases.

In the end, how do these three cases stack up against “the Gold Standard”?  The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) has established a Gold Standard for Project Based Learning ( with research-based essential elements that should be part of a successful PBL project.  The BIE Gold Standard components are 3 fold:

  1. Student learning goals – According to BIE, this component is the driving focus of the project. Goals for knowledge and understanding should apply to the real world and, solve a problem/answer a question. Goals for skills should include critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and self-management.
  2. Project design – BIE recommends the project design include
    1. Questions/problem
    2. Inquiry
    3. Authentic
    4. Student voice/choice
    5. Reflection
    6. Critique/revision
    7. Public product
  3. Practices for teaching in PBL are
    1. Design and plan
    2. Align to standards
    3. Building culture
    4. Management activities
    5. Scaffold
    6. Assessment
    7. Engage and coach

All three case study examples represent excellent resources for me as I contemplate how I would go about developing a PBL project.  All three had strong and effective student learning goals.  However, I think “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning” meet mostly all of the BIE Gold Standards components.  Beyond addressing the student learning goals, the geometry PBL project excelled with critique and revision.  It incorporated professional architects from the community who served as mentors to the students throughout the project.  Additionally, the geometry PBL met all of the BIE Gold Standard teaching practices, especially in the two areas of engage/coach and build a culture.  Students independence and open-ended inquiry coupled with team spirit and attention to quality thrived, and the teacher’s time and dedicated to the development of the PBL project was evident.



Armstrong, S. (2002, February 11). Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning. Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2002, June 6). March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration. Retrieved from

Curtis, D. (2001, October 1). More Fun Than a Barrel of … Worms?!. Retrieved from

Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J., Boss, S. (2015, April 21). Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements. Retrieved from




Final Thoughts on IBL

   Throughout this course I was pleased to have some of the practices that I use in my classroom community reinforced and validated in addition to learning that Inquiry is a student-centered process for learning in which the teacher acts more as a guide.  I have often strived to promote a sense of community and fellowship in my classroom.  Through the IBL course this concept was reinforced and my appreciation for the importance of establishing a sense of community in an Inquiry based classroom has grown stronger.  I continue to work on developing a classroom community where students feel their ideas are valued and where they feel inspired to take safe learning risks.

   Within the Essential Elements of Inquiry, classroom environment was one of several points introduced.  Two others were significantly interesting to me.  They included Abilities and Understanding of IBL and Understandings About Inquiry.  I learned about the Abilities Necessary to Do Inquiry as prescribed through IBL.  For me, these abilities echoed the scientific method (Question/Problem, Research, Hypothesis, Test, Data Collection and Analysis and Conclusion with reporting findings) The IBL abilities include: Identifying questions that can be answered through investigations, Designing and conducting an investigation, Using appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data, Developing descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence, Thinking critically and logically to make relationships between evidence and explanations, Recognizing and analyzing alternative explanations and predictions, and Communicating procedures and explanations.  Within the Essential Elements of Inquiry, I also learned the Understandings About Inquiry. Having these understanding outlined for me provided a guide that I can use a checklist for assuring that these are addressed in my lessons.  The Understandings about Inquiry are:    

  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of investigations.

  • Current knowledge and understanding guide investigations.

  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows us to analyze and quantify results of investigations.

  • Explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use principles, models, and theories.

  • New knowledge advances through legitimate skepticism.

  • Investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies.

   I also learned about the IBL Process Skills which once again reminded me of the scientific method (observing, questioning, planning and investigating, formulating explanations, making predictions, analyzing data, and communicating).  While all of these do not need to be present in every lesson,  in order to strengthen my lessons and include IBL, I need to be sure that at least one is incorporated.

   This class also challenged my understanding about facts and concepts.  After conducting an exercise of classifying a group of content statement into fact or concept, I became aware of my own understanding and was able to learn from my peers in this course that other options were viable.  This was a clear and excellent example of the ongoing, flexible learning that should be happening in my very own classroom.

   I was a bit overwhelmed by the wealth of resources (Web 2.0) available for our use in the classroom  But it was helpful to learn that some of the older applications (Google docs) are still tried and true and most useful when integrated into an inquiry classroom along with the 5Es (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate).  Paralleling the Understanding by Design Backward model, the evaluation part of the 5Es is ongoing and aides with the cyclic nature of the inquiry process, reminding me to continually conduct  formative assessments throughout a learning unit.  


5E & Web 2.0

This past week we looked at IBL framework and objectives through the lens of the curriculum that most closely relates to the student-centered ideas of IBL — Understanding by Design model that was created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  The UBD backward design model and IBL abilities and understandings of inquiry, process skills and other features of inquiry blend excellently with the 5E instructional model (ttp://  The key to incorporating all of these models is the strength provided through formative assessment.  As provided through our Topic B lesson with respect to 5# instructions model:  

“This model is a process that moves between five key features (the E’s); Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate. It is important to note that the evaluate piece is ongoing in each of the other parts of the cycle (formative assessment) as well as at the end (summative assessment).”

Imperative and essential for improved student learning is the opportunity for students to reflect and realize where their strengths and weakness appear, all the while knowing that there is real opportunity for improvement while learning and experimenting.

Personally, during the last week I’ve challenged myself to be more open and daring about the Web 2.0 tools used with my students.  With the change of mindset I was able to free my planning allowing more use of interactive, Internet-based student-centered activities.  In fact, our district technology adminstrator was conducting classroom visits.  When he observed my classroom for a 20-minute section, students were actively using their laptops to collaborate creatively via and using Google doc.  The tech supervisor actually said he’d never heard of padlet before and was impressed with the student engagement.  Onward!

Questions, Fact, Concepts, Web Techtools… oh my!!!


Students ability to address various types of questions in pursuit of knowledge is keep to their future success regardless if they are continuing to higher education entering the workforce.  It’s a teacher’s responsibility to understand and utilize a myriad of types of questions in order to facilitate student learning.   In that pursuit there are two types of  questions, investigable and non-investigable, are important for student learning.  Despite the value of questions that are investigable questions which offer  hands on experimentation and variable manipulation, questions that do not require investigation also give students opportunities in practice research and establishing preliminary content that lead to investigation and experimentation.  Accepting this nuance has provided clarity for my planning and practice.

Another point that has become clearer to me over the past two weeks is the distinct between a fact and concept as defined under the IBL umbrella ( Facts:  Facts or definitions are isolated pieces of information. The focus is on verifiable and discrete details.  Concepts:   Concepts are over-arching ideas that clearly show the relationships between facts. They are frequently abstract. As I have come to understand it, the fact is the specific incident or detail.  


Finally, I continue to be positively overwhelmed by the vast amounts of quality, creative Web-based technology tools that can be used in the classroom for everything from  communicating and collaborating to researching and analyzing.  Web-based technology tools are perfect vehicle to “flip” the classroom and enhance student-centered approach to instruction.  Student engagement is primed, increasing their attention and focus, motivating them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills, and promoting  meaningful learning experiences.  

If I could have one wish, I don’t think it would come as surprise to other teacher, I would wish for more time to plan and develop lessons that would incorporate more of these concepts.

ideas about scaffolding & multidisciplinary

Until this past week before viewing The Physics of Optics ( series126.html?pop=yes&pid=1414) I had a rather narrower interpretation of scaffolding and a broader interpretation of multidisciplinary.  For whatever reason, I had come to the conclusion that scaffolding of knowledge should be approached on an almost daily basis.  For example, I’d plan a daily lesson and attempt to weave scaffolding within that one day’s plan.  But, after analyzing The Physics of Optics I realized that I was limiting the benefits of scaffolding and could make a greater impact on content delivery and retention if I design the lesson to scaffold across the unit – from one lesson into the next, across the span of several days.  On that same token as I analyzed the physics lesson I also came to the conclusion that I had interpreted multidisciplinary too broadly.  In fact, as a Biology teacher, I had developed the preconceived notion that in order for me to have a multidisciplinary lesson, it could not include another science content, i.e, physics, anatomy.  I had developed the notion that interdisciplinary meant strictly science again some other content, English, history.  But, WHY NOT?!  Now, that I’ve had these two revelations I realize that I may have been limiting my and my students’ options for content development and transfer of new knowledge.

As I reflected over the past two weeks’ course work and contemplated how I could transfer it into my classroom, I remain curious about how to

u01a01 – IBL

Monday:  Hhhhmm?  Inquiry based learning?  Let’s see…I remember now.  I attended a professional development where one of the sessions provided an overview. There is something about students working in groups to develop a joint project.  And, I remember it seemed like it had a lot of different pieces.   Student-centered is at the core.  But, how is that different?  What’s the ‘inquiry’ part all about?  Ha!  Irony.

Tuesday:     IBL seems chaotic.  We are activating some prior knowledge, providing background information, defining an outcome that could involve technology, reading, teamwork, and project management.  How do I assess all of this?  How do I manage the classroom as students work in groups and accomplish tasks at varying times?

Wednesday: IBL is “dynamic,” “fluid”, “multi-faceted” Sounds great!  What’s the catch?  Why isn’t every teacher using it?

Thursday:  It’s like the scientific method.  The circle of inquiry mirrors the steps of the scientific process during an investigation.  It’s a lot like the scientific method, except let’s add opportunities for reflection and general group discussion.  This may be where I can monitor progress (assess.)