Powerful Project-based Learning

Thirty years have passed and I still vividly remember my 5th-grade park project.   We were asked to form groups and design a new park for an imaginary space in our community.  The dimensions of the space were provided along with predicted costs of equipment and other information we would need.  Our task was to carefully architect a safe and functional, yet fun-filled place for family and children to gather.  We considered the costs of desired equipment (long before we could easily search such things on the Internet) and the needs of the community.  One requirement was to have a vision that was consistently carried throughout all aspects of the park design, making it aesthetically pleasing to park-goers and passerby. Once we collaborated on working plan and blueprint, our team was ready to create the final product.  Armed with smooth, stark white poster board, we began with careful sketches.  Later, we infused color and saw our vision appear where there was once only blank space.  Grass sprouted, a twisty slide appeared, a pirate ship sat half sunk in the sandpit.  All this filled up an imaginary space in our community and in our minds.   After our presentations, the teacher ultimately chose a winner for best design.  We lost out to a group that incorporated a petting zoo on one end and a jungle-theme throughout.  Even though we didn’t win, this assignment remained with me.  Why?  Because I was able to not only collaborate with friends but also to use my creativity and tackle a real task that adults in the real world tackle.  The assignment felt relevant.  This is the power of project-based learning.

Project-based learning resources will be provided at the end of this post.  But first, I have to showcase PBL happening in U.S. History classes with our very own Craig Williams.  Craig’s students are excited about his BRAC (Base Realignment and Closures) Repurposing Project…so excited, in fact, that they are talking about it in their other classes! I dropped in and immediately saw that his project met all of the characteristics of an effective Project-based Learning design.

Start with a Driving Question

All projects should start with a driving question.  This question should be one that helps students to dive deeper into significant content.  Below is an outline of the task and the driving question posed to students.



Entry Event

The entry event should pique student interest in the project and serve to prompt the inquiry process.

PBL Entry

Student Voice and Choice

The task should be one that allows students to collaborate and tackle a real-world situation.  It should also allow for creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.  Craig outlines the task below:

group task

Student-driven Inquiry and Research 

To help students in the inquiry process, Craig poses questions from three stakeholders.  These are the same stakeholders who will determine in the project is, indeed, worthy of funding.


Reflect and Revise 

Students are given class time to not only research, but also reflect on their findings, problem solve, write, create and revise.  When I visited Craig’s class his students were gathered in their groups, scouring over their presentations that were due a day later.  They looked for any areas that may be problematic.  For instance, one group worked on a university they designed to help bring more people to their small Massachusetts.  They had to consider reactions, however, from community members who might want to keep their town small.  Another group worked with a property in Arizona.  They had planned a family-friendly entertainment center with an outdoor miniature golf course.  Since Arizona can become quite hot, they wanted to include some sort of cooling system, such as misters, but were concerned what the environmentalists would think.  One student suggested the misters only be activated by a button and only mist for a short amount of time. Another group was planning an “aqua-zoo,” but realized they needed to have backup generators in case the power ever went out.  A student quickly Googled costs of generators and factored it into the costs.  This led to a discussion about the high energy bills they would most likely accrue for the aquarium so they began to discuss solar panels.   Listening to the students work together, research, and problem-solve—all with such enthusiasm—I saw the power of Project-based Learning.  This student-driven pedagogy is the future of education.

Public Audience 

Once the work is complete, the groups are required to present before a public audience of their peers and of the panel judges.  Please note the billionaire…who knew Craig was so rich!?!


I dropped in during the presentations this Monday.  Students not only presented their ideas to the panel, they also had to field questions from the audience.  Some groups were grilled intensely by their peers.  The panel of judges also asked questions, based on their respective interests, about environmental impacts, profit margins, and local economic growth predictions.  Throughout the presentations, the students remained poised and called upon their research to answer questions.  In the end, the panel of judges each discussed their interest in and/or reservations about the project.

Are you interested in learning more about Project-Based Learning?  Check out the 5 Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning.   You can also read more about PBL on Jennifer Gonzalez’s absolutely amazing blog, Cult of Pedagogy.



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