Engaging Middle Schoolers in Authentic PBL


Being part of a small and underperforming rural district, we feel the constant pressure that surrounds high stakes testing. As administrators and teachers constantly look at how we can improve state assessment scores (especially in math/reading), it can become easy to ignore the kind of authentic learning that can be found outside of preparing for the state tests. 

As the district STEM Coordinator, part of my job is to help support teachers and students more easily implement an engaging PBL (Project Based Learning) model. I found the Defined Learning curriculum to be one that provides some helpful lessons and resources to better engage students. An already-made STEM curriculum is one less thing for teachers to prepare and create on top of all of their expectations and duties.

Explore the PBL

We recently used the Aquarium Designer performance task with a group of 5th graders. The students were placed in groups of three. They were able to work through each step with minimal coaching and facilitating from myself. The students proved to be very independent as they were engaged in something unlike anything they had ever done before. This was an opportunity for students to learn something new, work collaboratively, and express some of their creativity along the way. 

The students were given the challenge of becoming an aquarium design team that would make a sales pitch to a panel of interested buyers. They used the resources provided to learn more about what it takes to design and build aquariums. Through the resources on Defined Learning, students gained a better understanding of volume. Along with the math concept embedded into the PBL, students were challenged to research, write, think critically, and provide multiple presentations on their findings. Students researched different kinds of fish for their aquarium. They had to be thorough in finding fish that could live together in a similar environment: water type, water temperature, pH, etc. The teams created a spreadsheet to keep track of an expense report for the aquarium and all that would go inside. 

Make It

Our school has a fabrication lab with 3D printers. I know not everyone has access to these. But if you do, finding a way to incorporate your maker space or fab lab when possible will help bring some more authenticity to the PBL. The students designed a prototype for an aquarium using CAD software. When complete, we printed up their prototypes. These were used as part of the final product. This part of the process was very exciting for students. If you didn’t have a 3D printer, students could use other materials to design/build a prototype. 

Authentic Audience

Just as important as the work itself, students were able to present their results to an authentic audience. I invited the school principal, counselor, a few teachers, and even the district superintendent to take part. All of them came to listen, ask questions, and provide feedback as they served as the panel of “interested buyers.” Students not only gained valuable experience in presenting, but they had to work through some challenging questions from the panel. Without this step in the process, I don’t know if students would’ve had the same feeling of satisfaction of a job well done. It is very critical for any PBL that the students have an opportunity (whether they like it or not) to present their work to someone other than the teacher. Students will take more ownership of work that has an authentic purpose and audience. 



Shaun Spence is a K-8 STEM Coordinator at Cardinal Local Schools in Ohio. You can find Shaun on Twitter @shaun_w_spence. 


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