Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Project / Problem Based Education

I had the opportunity the other day visit the STEM lab school for Adams 12 five star school district. The school is based around science and engineering projects and problems driving student’s education. The projects students were doing were authentic and creative and the school also has impressive test scores. This seems like a great a model for implementing standards that have a renewed focus on areas such as critical thinking, collaboration, invention, as well as relevance, but what does the research say about project based learning.

First off, let’s investigate what project based learning is; Bransford and Stein in 1993 defined project based learning as a comprehensive instructional approach to engage students in sustained, cooperative investigations. The project based learning website PBL-online.org defines project based learning as “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.”

In 1994 Brown and Campione identified two essential components of projects: (1) A driving question or problem that serves to organize and drive activities. (2) A culminating product(s) that meaningfully addresses the driving question. Blumenfeld in 1991 went further in writing that project based learning students should pursue solutions to problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating ideas and findings, and creating artifacts (Blumenfeld et al., 1991).

All of this points to students being actively engaged in a meaningful problem solving activities where they have to produce some sort of product. Projects can integrate multiple concepts and disciplines and therefore help students make connections between math, science, social studies, art, and reading, writing, and communicating. Brain research shows that the more meaningful and real life connections students can make the more robust the learning, the kinds of authentic connections that must be made through well throughout and well planned projects. Mo and Choi indeed found in 2003 that PBL was more effective than traditional instruction methods in terms of acquiring knowledge and motivation. Project based learning has also been found to increase student motivation and intellectual engagement (Blemenfield, 1991 and Pintrec and de Groot, 1990).

Project based education really focuses on the outcome and supporting students achieving that outcome. So, given all these positive points, why isn’t project based education more wide spread? After all, the idea has been around since Dewey (1933). Well, not all the research is positive for example, the study Factors Influencing College Science Success out of Harvard University did not find doing projects a good indicator of college success. Also, project based education can also be challenging. Therefore it has been found that supporting teachers and students is crucial. Also teachers need to appreciate the complex nature of guiding students through projects that might involve difficult and reflective work (Blumenfeld et al.,1991).

Many teachers also feel that they don’t have the time or freedom to do project based learning in the standards based world. Yet the heart standards based education is a focus on outcomes not inputs, which is just what project based education is all about. And with the increase focus of standards on 21st century skills and conceptual understanding, projects are an ideal tool for teachers to use, as good projects really focus on 21st century skills such as critical thinking and collaboration. In addition by integrating the arts, sciences, literacy, and social studies into one project teachers might find the tool they really need to ensure mastery of all students with all standards.

For more information on project based education:
Bradley-Levine, J., Berghoff, B., Seybold, J., Sever, R., Blackwell, S. & Smiley, A. (2010). What teachers and administrators "need to know" about project-based learning implementation. Paper presented at Annual Meetings of the American Educational Research Association. Denver, CO. April, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/teachers_and_administrators_need_to_know.

Bransford, J. D., & Stein, B. S. (1993). The IDEAL problem solver (2nd ed.). New York: Freeman.

Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26 (3 & 4), 369-398.

Bruner, J. (1962). On knowing: Essays for the left hand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uiversity Press.

Bredderman, T. (1983). Effects of activity-based elementary science on student outcomes: A quantitative synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 53, 499-518.
Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 229-272). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dewey, S. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. New Issue with Essay by Maxine Greene. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hmelo-Silver, C., Duncan, R., Chinn, C. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99-107. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/pbl_is_not_minimally_guided.

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1918). The project method. Teachers College Record, 19, 319-335).

Mo, K., & Choi, Y. (2003) Comparing Problem-based Learning with Traditional Instruction: Focus on High School Economics.

Sizer, T. R. (1984) Horace's compromise--the dilemma of the American high school : the first report from A study of American high schools, co-sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Commission on Educational Issues of the National Association of Independent Schools Boston : Houghton Mifflin.

Strobel, J. and van Barneveld, A. (2009) When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses, Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning volume 3, no. 1

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