Building STEM Competencies Through Project-Based Learning

Learn how PBL can bring about rigorous and engaging teaching needed to build students' future-ready competencies.

Teaching STEM? What do you want your students to know and be able to do as they go through their STEM journey? I’m guessing some student skills at the top of your list include these: apply important math and science concepts, demonstrate successful problem-solving skills, collaborate successfully in teams, use technology appropriately and competently, and continually expand their capacity for creativity and innovation.

Donna Deeds, Educator-in-Residence in Education at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation explains additional skills students need before entering the world of work. Deeds writes, “. . . core competencies, identified by industry as the ‘price of admission’ for future employment, include the ability to drive results, collaborate, instill trust, plan and align, read for information . . . not to mention financial literacy. . .”

Moreover, Deeds goes on to say that all these skills and abilities should be achievable from any K-12 system, given the right tools, experiences, and support.

That’s a tall order without a solid, research-based process for guiding kids to gain these skills. Obviously, the old-school method of “sit and get,” in straight rows working individually (quiet please, no talking!) hasn’t done the job. And it won’t. So how are you going to teach these highly important competencies to your students?

How do STEM kids need to learn?
For teaching these STEM competencies, meet your best friend – Project-Based Learning, commonly known as PBL. PBL has been around awhile – since the ‘60s, in fact. (The seeds of PBL have been around since Aristotle.) As noted by Defined STEM, The basic strategies of PBL provide the ideal delivery system for STEM instruction and learning. The teacher shifts from a presenter to a guide who facilitates student learning. Students take ownership of the project and work together in small groups over time to discover answers for authentic problems.

Take close note of the tight connection between PLB and a basic STEM essential - the Engineering Design Process (EDP). Both PBL and the EDP call for kids to identify a real, relevant problem and to learn all they can about it in order to generate possible solutions. Students use the information they gain to make decisions about solving the problem. They collaborate in small groups to brainstorm different possible solutions and choose one they think might work. They apply grade-level science and math to design a solution and construct a prototype. Students test, evaluate, and redesign their solution as necessary. Technology plays a role in research, development, collaboration, and/or communication of the project. As they work together, students develop a deeper knowledge of math and science as well as critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills.

According to the Buck Institute for Education, “Project Based Learning unleashes a contagious , creative energy among students and teachers.” Obviously, PBL is a tailor-made inquiry-based process for teaching STEM.

What goes on in a STEM School?
Suppose you are already in a school that’s doing schoolwide PBL. Are you teaching STEM? Not necessarily. STEM-focused PBL is a committed, intentional focus on rigorous learning in four STEM components – science, technology, engineering, and math. That doesn’t mean that other subject areas can’t contribute to solving a STEM problem, but their contributions should not be contrived just so they’ll have a role. Subject coordination is not the same as subject integration.

So, in a school with a schoolwide PBL program, what kind of contributions can other subjects make? I set out to answer that question and came up with some ideas I published in this post: How Do We Integrate STEM Across Subjects?

I think of a STEM school as a PBL school that focuses schoolwide on an engineering design process way of thinking and places a primary focus on authentic problem-solving. For example, one way of “doing STEM” in history might be to look at the problems that engineers have solved over the course of time. Throughout history engineers (or their early equivalents) developed technologies to solve problems. For example, ancient Egyptians faced the challenge of building tombs for the pharaohs and their families. They came up with the pyramid as a design to solve the problem. History teachers might help students think of the pyramids as a solution to a problem and then go deeper by asking students:


• What engineering feats had to be tackled to build a pyramid? (Some challenges that Egyptians would have faced in building that pyramid includes calculating the dimensions. Think about transporting 2.3 million blocks of stone averaging about 2.5 tons each, then assembling these into a pyramid; designing the interior layers of the pyramid; protecting the burial chambers , and so on.)
• How would you (the students) have approached solving these problems had you been alive then? Let kids work in teams to design solutions for a problem they identified and then build prototypes of their designs. Their social studies fair displays might showcase their own solutions.

A PBL/STEM school, then, might involve a systematic, schoolwide approach to problem-solving in all subject areas. Regardless of the subject area, start by asking, What problems need to be solved?” This question starts a STEM process and helps kids see the role that engineering plays in every aspect of their lives. Using the Engineering Design Process, all teachers would build on students’ curiosity and help them learn to ask genuinely good questions. In every subject, kids would understand and practice the thought processes behind systematic problem-solving. And when authentic connections to STEM projects occur (as they always do), other subject areas could be validly integrated into the project.

Regardless of whether you agree with my view of a STEM school, PBL and STEM are inseparable processes. These instructional practices, done correctly, can bring about that rigorous and engaging teaching needed to prepare our students with those competencies they need for the 21st Century world.


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 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.


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