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.  (http://www.learner.org/jnorth/about) 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 (http://www.bie.org/blog/gold_standard_pbl_essential_project_design_elements) 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 https://www.edutopia.org/mountlake-terrace-geometry-design

Curtis, D. (2002, June 6). March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/march-monarchs

Curtis, D. (2001, October 1). More Fun Than a Barrel of … Worms?!. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/more-fun-barrel-worms

Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J., Boss, S. (2015, April 21). Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/blog/gold_standard_pbl_essential_project_design_elements




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