PBL Pro Tips by John Larmer: How Can You Launch a Project to Engage Students & Ignite Curiosity?

Imagine you’re a middle school student sitting in science class. Which of the following two scenarios would engage you the most? Which would ignite your curiosity and cause you to ask questions?

  1. The teacher tells the class, “Today we’re going to begin a project about plastic in the ocean. It’s going to be three weeks long, and you’ll be writing a 1000-word persuasive essay and making a group presentation at the end. Here’s a vocabulary list for some terms you’ll need to memorize, so complete this worksheet for homework tonight. This project will address the following standards…”
  2. The teacher tells the class, “Today I’m going to ask you to work as ocean scientists. You’re going to do some field work by walking around the neighborhood near our school. We’ll be walking by several drainage ditches and the creek. See how many pieces of plastic you can find in or near them. Bring something to write with and record what you observe on this data collection form, along with any questions you have about what you see…” 

The difference is pretty obvious, but unfortunately, a lot of project-based learning experiences begin with something closer to scenario  #1 than #2. Instead of an exciting project, it sounds like the start of just another lesson or unit, only longer and harder. The second scenario is an example of an “entry event” and I’d encourage you to have one in every project.

What Is an Entry Event and Why Have One?

Many teachers are familiar with the concept of a “hook” to begin a lesson, also referred to as the ”anticipatory set.” An entry event is similar, but a hook is often just a short comment, quote, video, activity, or a visual aid or prop. An entry event is longer and more in-depth–just as a project is longer and more in-depth than a lesson. An entry event can take most or all of a class period, or even extend for a day or two, and it is managed carefully by the teacher to make it effective.

Btw, if “entry event” sounds too technical for you, I like the term “project launch” too. It brings to mind a strong visual image–a rocket taking off into the sky or a boat leaving the shore–which is a good analogy for the journey students will be taking in a project.

An entry event serves several purposes:

  • It piques students’ curiosity about a topic and builds excitement about a project.
  • It alerts students to a problem that needs to be solved; it’s a call to action.
  • It connects a topic to students’ lives, interests, cultures, or communities.
  • It generates questions, to begin the process of inquiry that is central to PBL.
  • It makes students want to learn more.
  • It can create an emotional connection to the project, which is key to student engagement in PBL.

Not all projects require a formal entry event. Sometimes a topic is so “hot” in a community, among students, or in the world that you can launch a project simply by having a discussion. For example, if your community or one nearby recently experienced a natural disaster, it wouldn’t take much to engage students in a project about helping prepare for a possible next one. Or if playground misbehavior has been on the rise at school, or traffic in the parking lot is a mess, that presents an authentic problem-solving situation that would spark a lively discussion to launch a project.

But some topics might not naturally be of interest to children and teens. An English teacher might love Shakespeare, a history teacher geeks out over World War I, a science teacher finds evolution fascinating, and a math teacher cannot believe how easily people are manipulated by the misuse of statistics. But their students might not share their interests, or even be aware of the topic. So you’ve got to lead the horse to water and persuade it to take a drink. That’s what an entry event does.

Examples of Entry Events:

An entry event can take many forms, such as:

  • Lively discussion
  • Activity or simulation
  • Song, poem, art, or physical artifacts
  • Startling set of statistics
  • Provocative reading or website viewing
  • Guest speaker (in person or virtual visit)
  • Video clip from the internet, a film or TV show
  • Field trip or fieldwork
  • Puzzling problem
  • Piece of correspondence (real or simulated)

In Defined Learning’s performance tasks, there’s another piece of the entry event: a career video. Students watch a short video about the real-world role in which they are placed for the project–e.g., a landscape architect, photojournalist, stormwater analyst, or cryptographer. The video engages students by asking them to see themselves as adult-world professionals and generates questions about what people in these jobs do.

Here are some examples of entry events in various subjects and grade levels:

  • A science project about colonizing Mars is launched by showing a scene from the movie, The Martian.
  • A math project begins by having students examine graphs showing rising incomes, rising rents, and rising homelessness in a major U.S. city and discussing the implications.
  • In English class, students listen to a dramatic reading of the short story, The Tell-Tale Heart as the entry event for a project on “feeling guilty” where they write and publish their own creative short stories.
  • A history project in which students create podcasts on the post-9/11 response to terrorism is launched by a guest speaker–an Iraq War veteran who tells their story.
  • An economics/civics project begins with a fictitious letter from a candidate for the U.S. Senate, asking students as policy advisors to provide recommendations on what stance to take on various current issues.

What Happens After an Entry Event

After the entry event, students dig into the project. They generate questions, learn more background information, and in some projects are presented with (or create) a driving question or challenge statement. A powerful entry event, like the first stage of a rocket’s launch, keeps propelling students forward and can serve as a touchstone throughout the project.



About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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