3 Ways to Help Students Get Real with Research


Project-based learning is an engaging way of learning for students. It’s real. It’s creative. It helps kids make sense of the subject matter they’re learning.  That’s why the PBL process is closely tied to STEM projects. But, despite the fact that STEM-based PBL is fun, there’s one part of the process that generally brought a collective “sag and sigh” from my students…


Preparation for any PBL project includes exploring background information plus acquiring additional knowledge needed to make good decisions about project designs. In other words, it involves research. I could almost see my students shudder when I said that word and I knew what was going through their heads. They were conjuring visions of poring through volumes of print material or filling in the blanks on a research handout.

I suppose that is one way to research. But it’s not a particularly appealing approach for most students.  And it doesn’t have to be that way! Before you warm up the copy machine and drag out the books, think about the role that actual research has in the STEM engineering design process. What is research, anyway?  What do students need it for?

Consider using this definition for your STEM challenges: Research is the systematic process of collecting and analyzing information to increase students’ (1) understanding of the challenge and (2) chances of finding a successful solution.

With that definition in hand, you’re set to broaden students’ grasp of what STEM research is all about. Let’s look at three ways you can engage students in research that won’t involve them in poring over musty books looking for discrete bits of information.


3 Ways to Engage Students in Research:

Conducting Experiments

In one STEM project, students needed to construct an effective set of barriers for slowing down the flow of sediment from a model stream. In order to make good decisions about this, they first needed to find out what barrier properties would work best. For example, would the length of the barrier matter? What about the shape? What about the distance between the barriers? Student teams needed to test these kinds of properties using a scientific approach that carefully controlled all variables except the one being tested. Then data from all teams could be compiled and analyzed.

This investigation was actually the research phase of the project because teams were collecting and analyzing the information they would use to make decisions about their best possible barrier design (their engineering challenge). Hands-on investigations are exciting ways to engage students in research. Be sure students know exactly what information they need to collect for their engineering challenge.


Using Current Digital Technology 

Students need to be efficient, smart users of digital media and the Internet. One STEM challenge involved students in investigating genetically transmitted disorders. To conduct their research, students used a variety of digital media technology and tools. They collected, collaborated, and created a cache of information to inform their project decisions. Kids had digital options for sharing their findings by creating digital information cards through Quizlet or using apps like Book Creator.

Students typically enjoy STEM challenges that involve them in developing environmentally friendly products for specific purposes. For one such project, student teams used teacher-designed eLabs to investigate possible approaches and information they needed to make good decisions. Students also used videos and interactive activities from Khan Academy and the National Geographic Resource Library.

You are probably familiar with a variety of digital tools that students can use for researching, gathering, and sharing information – podcasts, TedTalks, Glogster, infographics, and so on. For new ideas, enter the type of app you need into a search engine.  For example, I typed “student collaboration tools” into a search engine and this popped up: 20 Fun Free Tools for Interactive Classroom Collaboration. This turns out to be a great resource. Students can begin developing digital teamwork skills as they research!


Talking With an “Expert”

As a learning tool, nothing beats live interaction with a specialist. Provide ways for your students to interact with a person who has the information they need to make decisions for their projects.  This can happen face to face or through a program such as Skype, Google Hangouts, or another video conferencing service. It can even happen in an instant messaging format that you project on the screen so all students can see it.

In one of our engineering challenges, students set out to solve a real problem at the school. They wanted to build a wetland to help with the runoff from their newly constructed school site. An environmental engineer from a nearby university came in and discussed with students what they needed to know about building a wetland. He and the students walked around the campus as he guided them with questions that would help them choose a good site. He and his engineering students remained a resource for the students as they constructed the wetland. A Master Gardener helped students understand and select plants suitable for a wetland. These ways of gathering information were not only “painless,” but they were fun for students and they tended to retain much of what they learned.

Bottom line – make research as active and engaging for your kids as the rest of your STEM project. The PBL approach demands nothing less! And if you have ideas for making research appealing and informative, please share them with us here.


About the Author:
Anne Jolly
is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed a nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website. 


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog