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Project-based learning: the pros and cons

Many schools claim to do project-based learning, but do they really? And what are the advantages of this kind of academic focus?

By Psyche Pascual

Technology teacher Bruce Lubak’s noticed a difference in his students since he began using projects to teach engineering skills at Parkland High School in Allentown, PA. Lubak couldn’t get over how passionate his kids were about their designs, pleading to tinker with them long after the projects were over.

One student designed a replica of a local roller-coaster ride at a nearby theme park. Another created a small-scale model of an elevator with the help of his father, who works at the Otis Elevator Company.

“Most students are motivated to have success. They want to see [their project] work. They want everyone in the class to see it work,” Lubak said. “They want to keep working on it, even after the project’s done.”

If Lubak’s classroom sounds little like the classroom you attended, you’re not alone. For decades, parents expected to see a teacher standing in front of a class lecturing or reading from a textbook.

The project-based model: less lecturing, more doing

But more classrooms around the country are looking a lot like Lubak’s. It’s an example of what’s called project-based learning (PBL), hands-on instruction that’s been around since the early 1900s. Supporters point to a growing body of research that shows that hands-on instruction is more effective than traditional methods for teaching everything from math and economics to social science and science classes.

Projects help students learn how to work independently and discover the answers to their own questions. By also learning to complete projects in teams, students gain communication and leadership skills that they can adapt to the real world. Finally, supporters say, the knowledge students gain from solving advanced mathematics and science problems will help them develop 21st century skills to work in a global economy.

“Many people are concerned that our international competitors are going to have more of the world market,” said John R. Mergendoller, the executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, which helps train teachers in project-based learning. “They want to make sure our kids can compete.”

Although there are no statistics to show that project-based learning is growing, supporters say there’s evidence more teachers are using projects to instruct students than they did a decade ago. In the year that ended in June 2004, for example, the Buck Institute helped train about 850 educators across the country in project-based learning. This year, Mergendoller expects that number to grow to 9,500.

Reverse engineering the project

Here’s how project-based learning works: teachers conceive of a project and may even do their own first. It can be literary work, a mathematical model, or as in Lubak’s case, an engineering design. Then the teachers work backwards to design lessons that will provide the skills students need to learn. Along the way, the teacher sets deadlines, helps students figure out the steps to create their project, and offers continual feedback.

At the end of the semester, there’s no test. Kids get to show off their know-how in a gallery show of their work. If appropriate, students could also create a website for the public to use, even actual products. The chance to get feedback is important, because it gives kids the chance to talk about their work and answer questions that might not have asked themselves.

If there were a laboratory to train America’s future Thomas Edisons and Marie Curies of the world, it might look a lot like a project-based classroom. Learning with a project in mind gets students thinking about the tasks and resources they need to take to complete a goal.

In a project-based learning classroom, the teacher’s role is to guide, not to give students the answers to their questions. If a student needs to draft engineering plans on a computer, for example, he or she would have to master computer design software first.

Students organize their tasks and find resources for their project. This might involve foraging for what they need in the field or working with local business leaders with the resources to help out. Teachers of project-based classrooms believe in trial and error can be a valuable lesson.

“What we’re trying to do is teach kids to be problem-solvers, to think creatively,” said Anne Jones, senior vice president and chief program officer at Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit that provides science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curriculum used at over 4,200 schools nationwide. “If there’s an obstacle in their way, and they know this is the right thing to do, kids figure it out. They partner with another school. They partner with a company.”