Project-based learning helps apply a ‘why’ to lessons

Dive Brief:

  • Linking real-world examples and project-based learning to curriculum can help classes visualize why they’re learning about a particular subject or lesson — and for science courses, this approach can also better embed the mechanics of a subject.
  • Educators may, for example, tie projects into a unit, such as asking physics students to design a wheelchair ramp or they having classes studying botany work build a pollinator garden.
  • “We call that authenticity,” said Bob Lenz, CEO of PBLWorks, the professional learning division of the nonprofit Buck Institute for Education. “The relevance is what hooks the kids. It’s pretty critical and one of the roles project-based learning serves.”

Dive Insight:

A former high school educator, Lenz remembers the physics teacher on his former campus at Archie Williams High School in San Anselmo, California, assigning a bridge-building exercise to students. But instead of having each pupil build the same structure and grade them on their success, he designed a contest. Students were challenged to see who could build the stronger bridge, with classes testing their structures using weights.

Lenz said student test scores were “significantly higher” after going through such project-based approaches than those taught using the previous curriculum.

“The kids were better able to recall the knowledge they gained because they were actively using it,” he said. “It also fills that role when teenagers ask, ‘When will I ever use it?’”

Linking complex science and engineering subjects like physics to real-world examples can better embed learning by making the information feel relevant to a student’s life. In that way, PBL can help engage students, generating more interest in what they’re learning. Lenz likens this to the difference between telling students to eat their spinach because it’s good for them over time versus seeing the value immediately. 

To Lenz, when classes feel immersed in STEM topics, the door widens to a larger group of students who may pursue additional classes in these subjects — or even a future career.

“This encourages more students who are particularly underrepresented in science,” Lenz said. “By having kids more excited about science and engineering, they’ll be more likely to study it.”

This article originally appeared in

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