Project-Based Learning Actively Engages Students

By March 25, 2013 Guest Posts

Ben Olsen

A guest blog written by one of our 2010 Gold Star recipients, Ben Olsen. He currently teachers sixth grade at North Cedar Elementary School in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

As a teacher, I ways thinking of new ways to get and keep my students engaged.  When teaching sixth grade, sometimes I have my work cut out for me!  My students often want to see WHY they need to know a skill or HOW it will apply to them in the real world.  Over the past two school years, I have begun to find great ways to address both questions, and so much more.  This is achieved through Project-Based Learning (PBL).  I had heard about PBL a few times in the past, but didn’t really understand what exactly it was.  Then, I was fortunate enough to travel out to San Diego, CA in January of 2012 to visit High Tech High and a couple other project-based elementary schools.  This gave me a real picture of what PBL could be and what it could do for students.

The heart of PBL is a good driving question that gets kids to think hard and dig into a problem.  A well constructed problem also will lead students to stumble onto essential skills that need to be taught.  However, since students need these skills right away, they suddenly seem much more relevant and useful.  Also, many students will discover concepts on their own, or become somewhat self-taught, under the watchful eye of the teacher, allowing for a deeper and more meaningful understanding.

The most recent project I presented to my class was the challenge of redesigning and adding to our classroom.  Students needed to come up with a design, create a scale model of the proposed design, shop online for items they’d like to add to the room ($200 budget), and write a persuasive essay to sway people that their design is the best.  This got at essential skills such as ratio and proportions and writing persuasively.  The students worked in teams of 2 or 3 and they attacked the challenge.  Tape measures crisscrossed the room, digital pictures were taken, computers whirred, and students talked and negotiated ideas.  I heard students discuss “repurposing” items and potential color combinations for bean bags in the new reading corner.  It was exciting to watch all the work happening.

In the end, the teams presented their ideas to their classmates, a few other classes, and all the teachers of the school.  Votes were counted and one team “won.”  This just meant that we actually put their idea into action.  However, all teams produced quality proposals to be very proud of.  They seemed to really enjoy the work, and they may not have even realized they were learning life skills at the same time.  I’m hooked on project-based learning and am planning out the next big project now!