Engaging Middle School Students in Deeper Learning with Career-Connected PBL

In today's digital age, student engagement is more of a challenge than ever before. Elizabeth Kreutzer, Middle School Science Teacher and Science Department Chair at Loch Raven Technical Academy in Baltimore City Public Schools, discusses her experience incorporating project-based learning into her classroom.


Teaching today is a war for student engagement. We are competing with cell phones, TikTok, Meta, and PlayStation. It is hard to find a tool that is as engaging as being virtually taken to a new world. This is especially true if you are trying to teach about the real world we actually live in. Luckily, teaching science and engineering practices gives us a boost because we can look at real-life phenomena and have the students make models. But how do you do this? Our County uses a tool that is helping me win at least some battles. This tool is called Defined Learning. Let me explain why you desperately need this tool for your classroom.  

Defined Learning, or DL, makes teaching a breeze as it brings model-building and sense-making of scientific phenomena together in real-world settings. DL starts each performance task with an introduction video. Each task has products (with rubrics), student check-ins, and the resources students might need to create these projects. This formula is magical as it allows you to put the focus on the student’s work, not the lesson. 

Defined Learning’s site is organized by course and grade band, containing tasks with friendly graphics and is easy to navigate. I LOVE the fact that YOU CAN CUSTOMIZE each task taking what works for your class and leaving what you are not using. 

Another thing I really like is the assigning of roles with their Goal, Role, Audience, and Situation part of the task. This puts the student in charge of their learning while giving the mindset of productive struggle. The students can see themselves in these roles. It is beautiful to watch play out in a classroom as the students have more of an ownership of their products. 

In my school district, we use units that reinforce what is taught in our standard classrooms. Let me tell you about how I taught the Aquarium Designer performance task. This task was taught along with ecology in the science classes, so it reinforced what the students were learning. This task focused on energy flow and interactions of organisms within an ecosystem. I did have other choices such as a Wildlife Biologist who studies bats or a Zoologist. I chose the Aquarium Designer because we had many aquariums, and I was able to put them to use. 

The introductory video is a nice way to introduce this lesson. After the video, I showed the students the product I chose, which was creating an aquarium that was customized to fit my class and creating a handbook for that aquarium. This pairing brought rich discussion about what the students liked about fish, and what their dream tanks would look like. This discussion also brought up experiences the students had at our National Aquarium. They were not as excited about the Handbook but understood it would be something they would create along with their tanks. The handbook also included information about how the energy cycled in their tanks. I changed this project slightly. Instead of being a project manager for a massive aquarium build, they were the project managers for creating their own aquarium. However, we did look at large tanks such as the Dubi Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, the National Aquarium, SeaWorld, and Disney’s larger tanks. The check-ins were helpful as they allowed the kids to think about their work on a micro and macro level. My students used the resources for the students to use to complete the products they chose. 

In addition to the project, I also had the students test the water quality in their respective tanks. The students recorded their findings. This data would later be graphed and explained by the groups. The purpose was for the students to learn that data also tells the story of their tank’s ecosystem. They learned tank maintenance such as the importance of water quality. For example, what is hard water and how to fix it? Or what is the difference between nitrate and nitrite? What do these things mean for your tank? What is the impact on the fish? My hope was that they would gain confidence as we moved through the task while creating tanks that were successful. 

As a project manager, we used the Engineering Design Process to plan for the tanks, thinking of criteria and constraints. As Director of exhibits, the students worked within our groups to set up the tanks. We added tank decor which included aquatic plants. We researched what water quality our fish would need to be happy. We tested the water for about two weeks before we introduced fish, being mindful that these organisms are real and alive. We looked at the abiotic factors to be sure we created a tank that was pleasing to the fish and to humans who were enjoying the tank. We looked at the biotic factors to be sure fish and plants could survive and thrive. 

While we were doing this, we were working on the aquarium handbook. The students explained what materials were needed and how to use them. The handbooks explained water quality. Their handbooks were required to have a section that explained each tested component of water quality and what steps to take if your tank has issues. I loved the concern and buy-in that the kids displayed each day. They came into class excited to get right to the tanks and see what was going on with their little ecosystems. It was real to learn that their water might appear fine; however, it can contain something that will harm the tank. Normally a 6th-grader is not too concerned with nitrite. That is until they understand what it is and how it can harm a tank. When they get a test that shows a high, or increasing level of nitrates, you have a very real-world teachable moment.

The fun really began when the fish came. We had guppies, cichlids, and koi. They took pictures of their fish and named them. I put masking tape with a printed ruler on my tanks so they could see how the fish grew. They talked about their fish to others in the school. In short order, the guppies had babies, which was the talk of the school. Kids I did not teach, and some teachers stopped by to see the babies. What a great discussion about resources that might lead to offspring, limiting factors, and carrying capacity. The students were so proud of themselves as they could explain how they set up the tank with intention. They created a healthy environment for the fish and the fish were doing well. They could also use real science vocabulary to explain the energy cycle of the fish. It was real to them. 

The tanks provided math skills. The students were still playing the role of project director as we tried to see what story the data told. I worked with each group one by one as we sought to make sense of our data. This took a while to teach but the educational confidence was wonderful to see. The students could speak with knowledge when asked about their tanks, the data, and the cycling of energy in a tank ecosystem. The conversations were organic and powerful coming from 6th graders. They were and are passionate about their little aquatic habitats. 

This was so fun to teach! I looked forward to seeing the kids and hearing their thoughts about their creation. The students have created thriving aquatic habitats because they have worked on the tank to help it function on its own. The students also have a handbook that will forever help them set up an aquarium and explain the importance of cycling matter. The beautiful part of this task was that even students who were not great at being students found a place within their groups. As we got into the task, I heard less of, “I can’t work with this person”, and more delegation of tasks as they worked together to create their habitat. The students ran to my class to get into the learning. When coming back from winter break a few students said they missed being in my STEM class and could not wait to come back and check on their fish.  

As my students move forward in life, I hope this lesson will be a reminder that they can do anything they set their minds to. I hope they will remember playing roles in their group and working together to create a project.  

This is what learning should be. Thank you, Defined Learning!

Tank 1 (1) (1)

Tank 3 (1)


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