Friday, March 1, 2013


I recently attended a webinar about how project-based learning (PBL) can help improve your STEM curriculum.  The webinar was led by Michael Gorman of the BUCK Institute for Education (BIE).

I have always considered myself leaning toward the PBL model.  Ironically, BIE would consider my past projects as the dessert, not the main course. In other words, teachers should make the project the main learning activity, not something tacked on at the end of a unit. My main concern about full-fledged project-based learning is that it's going to be hard for teachers to ensure that standards are met.  Since students can construct their own projects, they drive the learning.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I also see how students could lean too heavily in one area and ignore another.  I thought that BIE's page on PBL was very helpful in seeing exactly what goes into a project-based learning unit.  Their diagram on that page (see below), makes it easy to see what I should look for when constructing a PBL unit.

STEM is a common buzz word flying around educational writing these days. Most school models look at each of these components as separate courses.  You have your science courses and math courses, which everyone takes. Technology courses are for the nerds and engineering is done through a drafting course for people who are serious about an engineering career.  We present these thinking processes as separate and disjointed subjects (boxes, as described in the webinar), so it should come as no surprise when students see no connection among them.  I still remember as a high school student, my friends and I commenting that our science classes were becoming more like math classes and our math classes were looking like science.  (Light bulb!)  The proposition was made to put all these courses into one large box.  Allow students to see connections among science, technology, engineering, and math by teaching them as one course.  

Can that work? Maybe, but it will obviously take a major shift in philosophy and practice.  Administrators, teachers, parents, and students would have to embrace a model that is new and different, but potentially very effective.

During the webinar, we were told, "Project-based learning is the glue that hold STEM together."  Given that science is all about inquiry, hypothesizing, testing, and reporting, it makes sense.  If you can package your unit in such a way that students will learn the intended content standards while researching on their own and ending with a product to be proud of, you have a good thing in store.  The trick is learning how to do it effectively.

We were given scads of sites with ideas, plans, and even contests to get us started. (I'll post those links at the end of this post.)  Like any major shift, sometimes it's easier to start slowly.  Take one step this upcoming quarter toward a PBL/STEM model and build upon it for the next quarter.  

Is the PBL/STEM model the best course of action for the future of learning?  I have no idea, but I can see benefits from it. 

Here are some more takeaways from the webinar (or my own ruminations about the webinar):
  • If you can't swing a STEM class, would it be possible for various teachers to work collaboratively?  What if a math teacher and a science teacher decided they would team teach for two weeks, working together on a PBL model unit?
  • STEM isn't just for high school. I work with 5th graders at my church, and they talk about Robotics Club and Lego Club. In a previous post I mentioned Leah LaCrosse and the cool things she's doing in 5th grade science, including robotics with Legos.  
  • Add the arts, and you get STEAM. Those of us who are mathematically wired don't always think about the aesthetics of what we create. The arts can have (nay, need to have) a voice in the products we make with kids.
  • Innovation comes from experimenting. It is so easy to get into a cycle of lecture-assess, lecture-assess, review-test, repeat.  However, this teaches students to memorize for a test, not to learn for personal growth.  If we give them room to explore and tinker, there is a better chance for lifelong learning to happen.  
  • On the flip side, textbooks and direct instruction bring standards and continuity.  Don't forget that we can't trust every child to attack a healthy balanced diet of all Common Core Standards on their own.  There has to be balance, and with work that can come about.
  • I loved that some ladies in the audience mentioned STEM for girls. Let's do what we can to help the young ladies in our schools achieve more in STEM fields. 
Here are some links to guide you to PBL/STEM project ideas and contests.  
  • is a site to help kids see how their passions can lead to a STEM career.  Then kids can play games to help them learn more about that career. 
  • is an organization dedicated to bringing girls to the STEM table, using art as the gateway. 
  • Mike Gorman wrote this article about the proper use of PBL in the curriculum. 
  • is a different kind of search engine, with the scientist in mind. Click on it and play around for a while. 
  • is a great place to find science lesson plans and helps. 
  • Future City is a science contest which is not currently in action.  However, the site is still live, and you can get great ideas from that. 
  • eGFI -- An engineering site for K-12 classrooms. Anything with a robot on the splash page can't be half bad. 
  • Siemens has a STEM site to help teachers and students as they learn and grow. 
  • connects students to real life science projects. 
  • uses gaming to teach students the workings of a video game.
  • The Texas Girls Collaborative Project is full of great ideas to help girls get into STEM. 
  • The Young Scientist Challenge is a STEM contest sponsored by the Discovery Channel and 3M. 
  • The Kids' Science Challenge is another STEM contest.  The mascot is an Hawaiian shirt wearing chameleon.  That's worth clicking on right there. 
  •  Learning with the world, not about it. 
  • is another STEM challenge sponsored by Siemens.  It has EL, MS, and HS divisions. 
How are STEM and PBL working together in your school?  

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