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What is Project-Based Learning?

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Children in the U.S. have been exposed to hand-held technology for all or nearly all of their lives. Computer games, flat-screen TVs and social media are staples of their daily existence. While it may be difficult to measure the effect this has had on attention span, we can all agree that the competition to capture the attention of our children is fierce. Ask any teacher.

One way education can compete for the attention and engagement of our children is to offer them meaningful, hands-on learning experiences. Project-based learning (PBL), at times referred to as “problem-based learning,” does exactly that. Jane David, writing for Educational Leadership magazine, says, “The core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students’ interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context.”

In an article on, Kat Kennewell agrees. She observes that a traditional lecture where the teacher imparts knowledge to a roomful of attentive students is “like a forced march.” Project-based learning “is more like going exploring with only a general compass heading.”

STEM Subjects Make Great Projects

In “STEM and PBL: A Perfect Combination,” published on the blog Defined Learning, Kelsey Bednar notes that STEM, the acronym for curriculum focusing on science, technology, engineering and math, and PBL have several commonalities. They both incorporate real-world, authentic problems and contexts in which students practice problem-solving techniques and resolve complex challenges while they build critical thinking skills.

PBL and STEM both take an interdisciplinary approach. Instead of studying science, math or engineering in a siloed approach, PBL and STEM help students understand that real-world issues are rarely single-subject problems, and the solutions to their problems require academic skills in multiple areas. Instead of focusing on a single subject, students learn to focus on a single project.

PBL and STEM are both geared toward helping students achieve success in the workplace later in life. Students who are able to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and who can take their collaborating and communicating skills into the workplace, are more likely to be successful in their careers in the long term.

Again, Kennewell agrees: “STEM learning lends itself naturally to an integrated, real-world approach and that is what provides such great opportunities for STEM project and problem-based learning (PBL).” Many of today’s most in-demand careers use STEM skills and problem-solving, making PBL a viable educational approach.

Creating a STEM-based PBL Project

Not all projects will appeal to all students, and not all students will be equally engaged. Finding PBL experiences that spark interest and curiosity is key to success.

The nonprofit Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) recently published “PBL Your STEM Projects,” in which they discuss a process designed to engage students in STEM lessons. Creating a problem modeled after a contemporary or historical case is a good place to start. With the question or project identified, you then consider the academic standards and desired outcomes to answer four important questions:

  1. What do I want my students to learn?
  2. Why is this learning important?
  3. What are the problems or issues that they can resolve with the information they learn?
  4. What process(es) should they follow?

PBL Skills for Life

The strategies and skills students learn during a PBL project do not lose value upon graduation from high school. The benefits of project-based learning extend far beyond formal education.

Problem based learning:

  • Focuses on finding solutions for real problems. It involves students in productive groupwork where they learn how to collaborate and work in teams.
  • Develops critical thinking skills by teaching students how to discern facts and analyze data while designing solutions to problems.
  • Builds traits such as resiliency and persistence which help students achieve academic and career goals.
  • Teaches students self-management. Many of the activities are self-directed and teach students how to stay on track and achieve success.
  • Strengthens the development of multiple communication skills. By expressing ideas through written, oral, and visual communication, students build a foundation that will serve them well throughout life, regardless of academic or career direction.

Teaching PBL and STEM

Educators who want to gain the expertise needed to teach project-based learning and STEM subjects could have the opportunity to do so with a Master of Science in Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM education from Southern Oregon University. This fully online program from SOU prepares you for leadership roles as STEM teacher or curriculum specialist working in either PK-20 or informal education systems.

The program consists of 45 credit hours and includes courses on issues and methods in STEM education, as well as project-based learning as a pedagogical approach emphasizing student-driven inquiry and problem solving.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education program.


Educational Leadership: What Research Says About Project-Based Learning

TCEA: PBL Your STEM Projects

Defined Learning: STEM and PBL: A Perfect Combination

Edison: Alphabet Soup or Awesome Learning – What’s the Deal With STEM PBL?

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