Even though students drive the research and learning during a project-based lesson, it is these rich experiences that require the most planning. Here are some tips to help ensure your next project-based learning lesson is successful. If this is your first project-based lesson, start small and each year build on the successes and new ideas your students and experts offer.
- Topics should cover standards, connect to the local community, and provide an opportunity for meaningful research. Poll your students to find out what interests them. Mention topics that can be seen or studied locally. Perhaps an invasive species is damaging trees in your neighborhood or the school community would like to reduce its carbon footprint. Focusing on a local problem or issue will help students feel more connected to their community and their research will take on more meaning as they identify possible solutions to a problem.
- Involve professional organizations and professionals from the community. Working with organizations and individuals for help with research will help students connect their academic study with the real world. Begin recruiting professionals early in the process. Reach out to organizations that can host a field trip or have experts come into the classroom.
Once students have heard about or experienced what the professionals do, they should take on those roles themselves as they learn more about the topic. Students can become scientists, artists, and “community” leaders to get a sense of what it is like to engage in meaningful work. Have students look at pieces of a tree through a microscope to study the damage an insect might cause, create engaging flyers to tell residents how they can help prevent invasive species from damaging other trees, or canvas the neighborhood to spread their message.
- Identify and collect the major resources for the project, and make sure they are developmentally appropriate. Teachers need to scour the internet, libraries, and community resources to make sure there is enough information out there for each student to do meaningful research. Since students will conduct the research independently, make sure the information is accessible for their grade level. You don’t want to be weeks into a project to discover there aren’t enough age-appropriate resources about the topic.
What seems great at a planning meeting may not work in practice, so create a final product yourself, or with a team of teachers, to make sure it is possible to complete something in the time allotted, to determine the right number of students in a group, and uncover any snags in the process.
- Create a schedule. Projects are interdisciplinary and have lots of components. Make sure there is enough time to brainstorm topics, visit experts, conduct research in libraries and out in the real world, and time to create a high-quality final product. You’ll want to coordinate with other teachers and experts to make sure they are available at the appropriate time — after students have enough background on the topic, but before they are deep into their research. Consider alternatives if field research is dependent on weather or migration habits, or an upcoming event or election, for example.
Students will also be developing skills as they move through the process. Incorporate time for lessons on technology, how to conduct research, and interviewing, and peer-reviewing skills. And don’t forget to assess students along with way with quizzes, discussions, or by reviewing journal entries and progress on the final product. There is a lot to coordinate and timing is essential in order to not overwhelm students with too much too quickly. Plan early to make a complex project manageable and fun!
- Plan a culminating event. Students will do their best if they know their work will be seen by more people than just their peers in the classroom. Plan to showcase student work in the school library, or a local museum or community center — invite parents or other community members to attend as students present their findings. Be sure to allow time to reflect on the project, what went well, what could have been better. And don’t forget to celebrate!
See how one middle school in Maine is successfully incorporating this kind of learning into their curriculum: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education-jan-june13-learning_05-06/