Several years ago my district encouraged us to really start moving towards project-based learning in high school science especially – but really in every department at my school. At first, it just felt like ANOTHER new initiative being forced on us, if I am honest. But the more I studied and learned about PBL (project-based learning) the more I really fell in love with so many of the basic principles behind it.
I have ALWAYS been very passionate about providing a variety of assessments – particularly summative ones – for my students. I truly believe that some students’ brains aren’t wired to show their knowledge and understanding well in a traditional testing environment. Because of this, I started intentionally including nontraditional summative assessments every quarter, and eventually, every unit, in my curricula. You can read more about using nontraditional summative assessments in secondary classrooms here.
The more I learned about using project-based learning in high school science, the more excited I got because it felt REALLY aligned to what I wanted to accomplish in my classroom anyway. So what really is PBL? What is the difference between project-based vs. problem-based learning? Why do I think using project-based learning in high school science is so effective? And most importantly, HOW do you do it and do it well?
What is project-based learning?
Project-based learning really is fundamentally about creating new opportunities for students to both learn AND demonstrate their learning. It is student-centered and collaborative to the core. I am ALWAYS looking for more ways to build student autonomy and have THEM be at the center of their learning rather than me, and PBL is a great way to naturally do that.
Project-based learning is different from problem-based learning (despite having the same acronym PBL – of course, we have to make things as complicated as possible in the education world, right? 🤪 ). They are similar in that they both involve student choice, finding topics/problems for students to study that really interest them, analysis, and research. They differ mainly in their goals. The goal of project-based is to learn through a process to ultimately complete a product whereas the goal of problem-based is to create a solution to a problem.
My main motivations in incorporating more project-based learning in high school science were to:
- Create more opportunities for nontraditional assessments
- Increase student autonomy
- Allow students to investigate something meaningful to them so that they could truly see the relevance of what they were learning in the classroom
Project-based learning is really focused on the process and the product. True PBL is done in groups and is multidisciplinary. PBL also has a community component; students share their findings with a “community audience” and reflect on their feedback.
Why use project-based learning in high school science?
While PBL is great for all subjects, I especially love how it can be used in high school science. Research is an essential part of science and is essential to the PBL process. Science is also naturally interdisciplinary, as scientific writing brings in ELA components, mathematical analysis, and computational thinking which are both central to all scientific research.
Additionally, science is arguably the most relevant subject our students take in high school (don’t come at me other secondary teachers – I am obviously biased and think science is the best 🤣 ) It is so easy to take what students are learning in our classes and apply it to what they experience in the real world.
I love giving my students projects that don’t have a “right answer” and allowing them to research ethical considerations and societal implications. Both of these things naturally come up with pretty much any research-based science project our students will do.
As you can see, I love so many things about projects and specifically PBL, but especially that PBL is student-led, multidisciplinary, and relevant. I love how PBL incorporates student choice, community relevance, and communicating findings of the learning process through multiple products.
Because this type of learning engages students and gives them essential practice with critical skills they will use their entire lives, including researching, synthesizing ideas, asking questions, collaborating, revising, managing time, project planning, making community and cross-curricular connections, varying communication formats, and reflecting.
**If you’ve been looking for a different way to summatively assess your students at the end of the year, or a way to challenge students to see the relevance and interconnectedness of every topic covered in your content area all year long, PBL is a great way to do this – and I have resources to help you with it!**
Looking for project-based learning resources to use in your high school science classes?
These were designed as yearlong (or semester-long) extension projects for advanced students to do outside of class to really reinforce (1) real-world application of everything covered in your biology/PS/anatomy classes, and (2) the connections between all of the content you cover
However, they can also be adapted and used entirely in class, as a partner or group project, or as a PBL-style final assessment for your course.
Why do I say “PBL-style”?
I have always LOVED so many of the characteristics of project-based learning, as I’ve mentioned above. I especially love the emphasis on student voice and choice, student autonomy, and the value of the investigative process to create products that communicate an answer to the original essential/driving question.
However, these resources aren’t 100% true to PBL in that the focus is more on the long-term nature of investigating the topic independently, rather than working collaboratively with peers to learn about a unit through the completion of a project. Throughout the pages in the resource, you will see where I have pulled in my favorite components from PBL to create my vision for these independent research projects, but know that this resource wasn’t designed to be 100% PBL. However, I have included a list of suggestions for a few changes you can make (and additional rubrics you can use) to make it truly qualify as PBL.
If you are required to start incorporating project-based learning in your high school science course, I hope you find these resources helpful!!