Teaching is a profession filled with jargon, especially acronyms. Two educational acronyms getting a lot of positive attention recently are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and PBL (project-based learning). The pair are often discussed hand-in-hand – and for good reason. As one teacher put it, “it has to be PBL or it isn’t STEM learning. Am I right?”
Forget about single subjects—focus on a single project instead
For many educators, STEM is an exciting alternative to the traditional, ‘siloed’ method of teaching. With STEM, teachers engage students in the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics using an interdisciplinary and applied approach.
The subjects that comprise STEM (and its sister acronym STEAM, which adds arts to the mix) aren’t a random grouping. STEAM learning works because, in the real-world, these subjects all weave in and out of each other to form the fabric of many different situations. Think about architecture: to get a building designed and built, a lot of skills are called on. An architect needs to be an artist (capable of using highly technical rendering software) as well as an engineer (with solid mathematical skills to ensure the design is sound). Many of the most in-demand careers of today and, even more of those predicted for the future, use integrated combinations of STEAM skills and problem-solving.
Teaching STEM as an interdisciplinary exercise makes sense when you look at the practical applications of these disciplines in real life. STEM learning lends itself naturally to an integrated, real-world approach and that is what provides such great opportunities for STEM project and problem-based learning (PBL).
The value of PBL for students is immense. Projects enable students to explore topics from multiple angles, deepening knowledge and naturally engaging in so-called 21st Century skills (like critical thinking, collaboration and communication). Even at the most basic level, being able to work on projects with peers is a skill that will serve students well as adults. From home improvement to planning major celebrations to the endless projects that comprise most people’s employment, the world of adulthood is full of projects.
While the pros of teaching STEM through PBL are easy to see, many teachers don’t, simply because they don’t know where to start.
It really is about the journey
Think about all the projects you have in your own life. What is the common thread between them? The vast majority are likely just problems that need to be solved and the myriad tasks that arise on the way to that solution. The same is true of the projects in PBL.
Choose a direction, not a destination
If a traditional lecture is like a forced march, PBL is more like going exploring with only a general compass heading. The project’s objective (the problem that needs solving) and parameters (any rules or requirements) set the ‘path’ for students to follow, but their own approaches, ideas and questions end up driving the exact course. PBL is not about memorisation and tick-box checking – it’s about in-depth learning and real-world application. This real-life aspect is important; it’s what lets kids invest in the project and makes the resulting learning ‘sticky’ by connecting what happened in the classroom with students’ lives. Luckily, finding a good project with some form of real-world connection at its heart isn’t that tricky. Simply looking at things your students already love or are curious about is a great place to start.
Letting your students be the guides is a good rule of thumb with PBL in general. Leave a lot of the ‘how’ a project will run up to the kids: get them to ask questions, research, collaborate on ideas, provide each other with feedback and decide how best to present their results.
Set the project size based on time
One thing you should decide for your students is how much time they will have to work on the project. The size of the projects you can do with PBL can vary dramatically. You can have students work on a project over the course of a day, a week or even an entire term. How big a problem students can take on and how in-depth they can go will be decided, at least in part, by the time you have available. Don’t let a lack of time discourage you! You don’t need an entire school year to try a bit of PBL. Even a few hours will be enough to get started with a smaller project. Once you and your students get hands-on with project-based STEM, the ideas, and appetite, for what you can try next are bound to grow.