Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
One of the most important elements of experiential education is the authenticity of every learning experience.
The content and the approach should be real-world, relevant, and personally meaningful to students. One way to incorporate authenticity is through problem-based learning.
But what is problem-based learning and what does it look like in a classroom or homeschool setting? What are some problem-based learning examples? Start here.
What is Problem-Based Learning?
Problem-based learning (PrBL) is a teaching method that connects learning with real-world problems, ideally problems that students can directly relate to.
What does problem-based learning look like in the classroom or in a homeschool? The application of problem-based learning varies from setting to setting and group to group.
Because it’s personal and relevant to students, PrBL experiences are customized to the individuals and the communities they belong to.
The gist of problem-based learning is that students gain content knowledge and understand concepts through a problem/solution approach, and this, as you will soon see, is gold.
What is the Problem-Based Learning Framework?
The general framework of a problem-based learning experience includes:
What are the Benefits of Problem-Based Learning?
Problem-based learning is beneficial in so many ways.
Learners not only learn the concepts in a meaningful and relevant way, but they also build essential 21st-century skills in doing so.
Learning that is based on real-world problem-solving can be attributed to the process as much as the outcomes, if not more.
The process of identifying community issues, exploring those issues, and solving them requires teamwork, communication, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving skills, resourcefulness and so much more.
If your students are going to be learning about water pollution, for example, they could certainly read about the problem in a textbook and summarize the narrative, but the opportunity for 21st-century skill-building is minimal if not entirely absent.
Problem-based learning offers those opportunities.
Another benefit of problem-based learning is the depth of learning that results. Because students are examining real-world issues, more often than not issues that directly impact them and/or their communities, they are personally invested in and care about the process and outcomes.
What are Some Problem-Based Learning Examples?
There are a variety of ways to approach problem-based learning in classrooms and homeschools.
You can take a problem-based learning approach that is not time-intensive but is still beneficial and meaningful in a variety of ways.
You can take a more sustained, time-intensive approach to problem-based learning as well, which result in deep, lifelong learning experiences.
There are many options. The following problem-based learning examples are based on specific types of PrBL learning activities, all of which my students experience regularly.
The problem-based learning approach that I choose to take at any given time depends on a few factors such as the amount of time we have to do an activity or the topic that we’re covering.
I also determine which problem-based learning activity to do based on the standards that we’re working with.
For example, if it’s written into the Next Generation Science Standards to share final products with the public using a technology of choice, I might choose project-based learning as the PrBL approach because PBL naturally incorporates an authentic audience.
The problem-based learning example activities below are also a few of my major product lines on Teachers Pay Teachers.
If you are looking to save time and energy, these resources would give you that. If you’re new to problem-based learning and are feeling overwhelmed or worried about the learning curve, these resources would significantly reduce that overwhelm and worry.
Read through some of my favorite problem-based learning example activities below. Choose one or two that you’d like to incorporate or learn more about.
Then start brainstorming activity ideas for or with your own students, browse my TPT store and/or blog posts for inspiration, or purchase some of my resources to lighten the load and get started with ease.
1. Problem-Based Learning Challenges:
My problem-based learning challenges are my favorite go-to PrBL activities.
A real-world problem is identified. Students then examine the issue in depth, explore a variety of solutions, develop a comprehensive plan of action, and share their plans with classmates or community members.
The final piece, sharing solutions with others, opens the door for dialogue and reflection, which are both essential steps in experiential learning.
I tend to choose this option when I want my students to practice deep and expansive research skills.
I also choose problem-based learning challenges when I’m short on time. The comprehensive plans are hypothetical, so once students have presented their plans they move on to another learning experience.
Here is an example of a problem-based learning challenge activity:
As an environmental science teacher, I might assign “invasive species” as the topic my students will work with. My students then break up into small groups and go through a series of brainstorming exercises to identify a specific local invasive species that directly impacts their community.
Once each group has identified a specific problem, let’s say zebra mussels as an invasive species of midwestern lakes, they would begin examining the problem in depth.
Students might research the history of zebra mussels, how they ended up invading the area, human activities that are currently amplifying the problem, human activities that mitigate the problem, the impact of the invasive species on native species, the ecological and economic consequences, different perspectives on the issue, and more.
Once students have a solid and vast understanding of the problem, they begin exploring solutions from a variety of angles.
Groups can look at policy changes as one possible solution, direct removal of the species as another, education and awareness programs as an additional option, and scientific research and technology solutions to boot.
Students explore solutions that are already in place, those that are in the works, and those that have yet to be discovered.
Once students have several viable solutions in mind, they put together a plan that outlines a comprehensive set of solutions that together hypothetically solve the zebra mussel problem.
2. Project-Based Learning:
Ahh, project-based learning. My all-time favorite example of problem-based learning is self-directed project-based learning!
Project-based learning experiences start with a driving question. That driving question is typically formulated around a problem. That driving question acts as the PBL framework for the rest of the experience.
The components of project-based learning or the elements that make PBL stand apart from just any old project include community collaboration and/or communication, authentic learning experiences, innovative final products, and a public and authentic presentation.
Here is an example of project-based learning:
Let’s go back to invasive species as the problem. If it were me, I would have my students design and lead their own project-based learning experiences around the problem of invasive species.
I would ask that they either individually or in small groups choose one invasive species as the subject of their project. They would then design their project around the PBL components already mentioned.
Let’s say one small group of students chooses to focus on the problem of zebra mussels in Minnesota lakes.
The PBL design process includes identifying a specific problem, in this case, zebra mussels in Minnesota lakes. Students then identify community experts or partners that they may be able to utilize for information, resources, or a collaboration opportunity.
Students then determine an innovative final product and authentic presentation plan. Once they have a general idea of the direction they’d like to go they can write a driving question to guide the rest of the experience.
Here is an example driving question: “How can our environmental science group create a marketing campaign that educates boaters on the spread of zebra mussels?”
This driving question is a real question that a small group of my students came up with for their invasive species PBL.
They designed and created t-shirts (innovative final product) about the spread of zebra mussels. The t-shirt design was based on what they learned about invasive species and marketing (sustained inquiry).
The group volunteered at a local boat launch wearing their shirts, inspecting boats for zebra mussels and teaching boaters about zebra mussels.
Much of this experience was in collaboration with one of our local universities, which offered resources and expertise on individual and small group projects.
3. Community Action Projects:
My community action projects have project-based learning elements but focus directly on interest-based community issues upon which students take direct action.
I apply community action projects as a final project for most of my subject-based classes and seminars. As part of their senior project, my seniors also conduct career-related community action project. Finally, my advisory takes on a group community action project together every quarter.
In short, through various forms of community engagement, observation, and research, my students either independently or in groups identify community issues of interest.
Then they examine the issue, explore solutions, develop and coordinate an action plan, and take action in a way that solves or mitigates the problem.
I like to pair problem-based learning challenges with community action projects; a problem-based learning challenge is done first and a community action project follows. This time of problem-based learning curriculum is super comprehensive.
Here is an example of a community action project:
There are a variety of ways to take action on a community issue, one of which is education and awareness.
Let’s look at the invasive zebra mussels example again. Students might discover in the process of examining the issue that zebra mussels tend to spread from lake to lake by hitching rides on boats that also move from lake to lake.
Students realize that an important piece of solving the problem of zebra mussel spread is reaching out-of-town boaters, those that do not have a direct stake in the community.
Students choose to host an event with games, food, educational activities for kids, and more that not only educates boaters but celebrates the health of the ecosystem.
The goal students are after is getting people to notice and care about the potential consequences, and not just consequences to residents but to recreational boating tourists as well.
This project seems really big, time-intensive, and possibly expensive. It doesn't have to be. Students could tackle this problem in a variety of ways. An event is not required.
Students could also team up with residents and other community members. This strategy helps build important relationships for future projects as well as gain resources that aren't already there or affordable for the school such as food or space for such an event.
Bring the community in on the fun!
4. Design Thinking Maker Project
I love a good design thinking experience. Design thinking looks at problems and solutions from a design perspective.
Design thinking involves identifying an issue from as simple as water pooling up in the toothbrush holder to a more complex problem such as zebra mussel spread throughout regional lakes. Students design a solution to whatever problem is identified.
Students develop a solution to the problem through the phases of design thinking. They empathize, define, ideate, create a prototype, and test the product design.
Students develop specific skills through design thinking such as creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and so much more. It requires putting oneself in the shoes of those that are impacted by the problem.
I like a design thinking approach because it’s fun, and, like most problem-based learning experiences, it teaches kids how to solve real-world problems.
Here is an example of a design thinking maker project:
Again, students can approach the problem of zebra mussels from a design thinking perspective.
Students would look at the problem of zebra mussels, Students spend time in that first phase empathizing with those impacted by the problem to discover the reality and scope of it.
Students would explore products that could solve the problem from a variety of angles.
For example, they might like to design a preventive measure such as a material or gloss that would prevent the mussel from latching onto the boat. Or maybe they look at it from a removal angle and design a tool that easily removes and disposes of the zebra mussels. Or maybe they even design an effective awareness campaign.
Once they have a design in place to solve the defined problem they create a prototype, test it, and continue to refine the prototype until the design effectively solves the problem.
A teacher from Experiential Learning Depot’s Facebook Group asked me the other day which skill I think will be the most essential in the next 10-20 years.
My answer? Real-world problem-solving. In my opinion, problem-based learning is the way to help your students build that skill.
What do you think? How do you use problem-based learning with your students? If you haven’t started problem-based learning yet, what is preventing you? Let’s chat! Add your thoughts to the comments, and as always, email with questions!
High School Problem-Based Learning Resources
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
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.