Project-Based Learning in the Secondary Math Classroom? YES!

Districts and schools everywhere are seeing the value and benefits of using project-based learning in the classrooms.  It may seem easy for science teachers because they are accustomed to inquiry-based teaching, and maybe even elementary teachers because they have the same students all day and can integrate the projects across content areas.  But what about us – the secondary math teacher?  Yes, it maybe a little more challenging to implement because we have less time with more students and a large curriculum to cover by the time of “the test”, but it is worth it!


Math is a rich and complex subject which is filled with real-life applications. However, due to the pressure of “the test" and the massive amount of material, teachers find themselves covering the content quickly by lecturing and having students practice.  Let’s face it, our textbooks have us teach a concept, such as solving systems of linear equations, then it gives problems for the students to solve, even the “challenge” word problems, that are all solved using systems of linear equations.  So how are students supposed to know how to truly problem solve if they are given the path of solving it ahead of time?

Those of us who have been teaching math for several years know that some of the best math students have no concept of the application of math. They can apply the formulas, go through the steps and algorithms, score high on tests, but do they really know what to do with a real-life problem when it is not in the context of using that specific content to solve a word problem?

Project-based learning (PBL) is a great way to help students deepen their conceptual knowledge of key academic concepts. The PBL process combines the application of mathematics content with 21st century skills such as problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

So where can you find good project-based learning math lessons?  There are many results if you do a google search.  One site I suggest is the Buck Institute for Education which offers free PBL resources where you can search by math standard, topic or keyword.   You can also find some good projects for higher level math at PBL Pathways.  Additionally, Defined Learning is also a great resource for math performance tasks at all levels and mini-lesson videos that reinforce core academic content.


How do you know which project-based lesson to choose?  Look for these project elements:

  • Career-based.  Projects based on authentic scenarios in math careers help students understand that yes, people in the real world use these math concepts that we are teaching them.
  • Offers more than one product to complete. If students are creating a rooftop garden they may need to build the garden boxes with materials and fill them with soil (surface area and volume) as well as determine where to put the sprinklers so everything gets adequate water (equations of circles and semicircles).
  • Require the application of several different math standards. For example, in a problem of creating a design of an aquarium, students will be using measurements and volume for the design, expressions, and equations for the cost, and inequalities for the range of temperature and pH level of the water.
  • Problems are open-ended. There is not one right way to complete the problem, nor is there one right answer.
  • Based on real-world scenarios that are relevant to the students. They will not be going to the local store to buy 40 watermelons – but they might be ordering them to be delivered if they are running a restaurant or catering a party.
  • Include reflection by the students and opportunities to revise. Many students I have encountered ‘give up’ if they don’t get the correct answer the first time.  It is valuable for them to learn that career people are making a prototype first, then analyzing and making changes and tweaks maybe 2, 3, or more times before the product is considered finished.  It is never right the first time!


As teachers, we all want to prepare our students to be successful beyond high school.  In the 21st century workplace and in college, success requires more than basic knowledge and skills. Project-based learning connects students to their learning in ways that traditional instruction often does not.  It provides an opportunity for students to apply knowledge to solve a problem, think more deeply about content, and learn to ask questions because they are necessary to solve a problem.


About the Author:

Carolyn Marchetti is a former middle and high school math teacher.  She's held administrative positions in math and science curriculum, assessment and supervision at the district, county and state levels.  Carolyn is currently the Director of Curriculum and Training at Defined STEM.



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