Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Key Components of Project-Based Learning
I'm back with more on project-based learning! Yay! Anyone tired of it yet? I will never tire of PBL because it's such a powerful learning tool. The beauty of it is that is can work for anyone, because the projects are personalized.
There are a few elements that are important to consider in project-based learning, otherwise your students are just doing projects. Projects and project-based learning are different. I've talked about this before, so I won't get into detail. What I will do is explain some of the key components of project-based learning that sets it apart from other approaches to learning.
PBL Tool Kit:
Before I do that, I want to announce a product I just released in my TpT store, called "Project-Based Learning Tool Kit." It is a package of everything you need to implement student-directed projects in your classroom. Students design and execute their projects using the templates included in the package. This is the ideal outcome for any project-based learning environment in my opinion - the ultimate student-centered classroom! The tool kit incorporates the following elements of project-based learning:
Key Elements of Project-Based Learning:
1. Innovative final product - students conduct research or gather information on a topic of their choosing. Students then assemble that information into a final product that will demonstrate learning. Students are quick to settle on a poster board or slideshow presentation because it's easy. An innovative final product moves away from the cut and paste approach and gets into deeper learning. Check out a list of final product ideas from a previous Experiential Learning Depot post - 82 PBL Final Product Options.
2. Community Experts - this is a critical component of project-based learning. The idea is that students learn about their project topic by communicating and collaborating with direct sources. Students might conduct an interview with the expert or shadow them. The community member might assist them with their project by providing materials, a working space or expertise. This element helps students build a community network, among other things.
3. Authentic Presentations - an authentic presentation is one where the final product is shared with an audience outside of the boundaries of the classroom. The purpose is to motivate quality work and make an impact on the community. One of my students did a project on grieving the loss of a parent. She created a blog as a resource for those in a familiar situation. It would have been unfortunate if she only presented that project to her classmates, as she wouldn't have met a relevant audience. In addition to presenting to the class then, this student published a blog and marketed via social media so that her blog could meet those in need of resources and support during their time of grief.
4. Self-Assessments and Consistent Feedback - I have my students self-assess periodically throughout the project process using my generic PBL rubric, or their student-generated rubric. I meet with them to go over their self-assessment, provide feedback, and allow them time to revise and improve their work. Peer and community expert evaluations are great as well.
5. Project Reflection - This piece is so important. When a student's project is complete they should always look back on the experience. The ability to reflect, adjust and improve is an important life skill.
My students use this checklist when designing their projects to make sure they've covered all their PBL bases.
Great PBL Example:
I want to give you a quick idea of project-based learning by telling you about one of my all-time favorite student projects. Keep in mind, this was a senior project. Not all projects have to be this elaborate. My student worked on this project over the course of a year. But it's a great example because it really hits on all of the reasons project-based learning is GOLD.
Forrest was interested in botany. Around this time I was taking a course on teaching biotechnology. One day we were talking about it, and he told me about an article he read on algae farms, and how it was being harvested for fuel. This is how his senior project came to be, from a simple conversation about his interests.
Forrest's final product, he decided, would be harvesting algae and processing it into biofuel. He started volunteering at the University of Minnesota greenhouse. He contacted Brett Barney from the U of M Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. Forrest worked alongside him in his lab to gather information on how to start his own crop. Dr. Barney even GAVE Forrest algae and materials to get him started.
The Algae Biofuels Summit just happened to be taking place in Minneapolis around that time. Forrest got in touch with Advanced Biofuels USA to negotiate a deal on a ticket to the conference. They offered to donate his entrance to the conference free of charge as long as he agreed to write an article for their newsletter on his experience.
Read the rest of his article here.
The bottom line is that this student discovered an interest, asked questions, gathered information using a variety of world-class experts on the topic, created an innovative final product (harvesting and processing his own algae), and shared his work with an authentic, public audience. I don't think he even realizes today, seven years later, the immense impact this project had on his life. Only this experience could have resulted in the skills and knowledge that he gained. Completing a poster board on algae as a biofuel wouldn't have had the same impact. See what I mean?
What are some cool projects your students have done? What do they gain from the experience in addition to content knowledge? There are so many amazing ideas and cool projects going on out there. I see them everyday. Brag about yours students!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.