Gil Leal took AP Environmental Science taught with a project-based learning approach at San Pedro Senior High School Marine Science Magnet in Los Angeles.
One project involved students working in teams to design a farm. They researched issues including water management, pest control and demand for agricultural products. Students then incorporated that knowledge into their design, Leal says in a panel discussion on project-based learning. Now a sophomore at the University of California–Los Angeles, Leal says the class convinced him to major in environmental science.
“The projects made class really cool and engaging and memorable, and we got to visit a real strawberry farm,” Leal told the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Unlike traditional school projects that often take place at the end of a unit, project-based learning, or PBL, is an educational philosophy that calls upon students to take on a real-world question — such as how to best design a farm — and explore it over a period of weeks. Teachers incorporate grade-level instruction into the project, which is designed to meet academic goals and standards, and students learn content and skills while working collaboratively, thinking critically and often revising their work. At the end, that work is shared publicly.
“Project-based learning is not the activity at the end, it’s the activity at the beginning that drives the learning and builds the engagement,” says Kristin De Vivo, executive director of Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
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Studies Show PBL Is Effective
The foundation, created by the famous filmmaker, works to improve K-12 education and recently released research showing that project-based learning can be extremely effective.
Four studies released in February by Lucas Education Research, along with researchers from five major universities, showed that students in project-based learning classrooms across the United States significantly outperformed students in typical classrooms.
In a study involving high schoolers, students taught AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science with a project-based learning approach outperformed peers on AP exams by 8 percentage points in the first year and were more likely to earn a passing score of 3 or above, giving them a chance to receive college credit. In the second year, the gap widened to 10 percentage points. One key finding of the study, which included large urban school districts, was that the higher scores were seen among both students of color and those from lower-income households.
Similar results were found in a study involving third graders studying science. Students from a variety of backgrounds in project-based learning classrooms scored 8 percentage points higher than peers on a state science test. These results held regardless of a student’s reading level.
Project-Based Learning Is ‘Active’
Project-based learning succeeds across income groups because it involves active learning, which leads to deeper engagement and understanding, according to De Vivo.
“Engagement is the gateway to all learning,” De Vivo says. “When students are able to construct knowledge, not given an answer, that active learning wakes up the brain.”
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Suppose third grade students are asked why a toy car moves faster on a wood floor than on a carpet, and the students get on the floor with a toy car to explore that question. Later, when they are asked how friction works, their answer will draw upon personal experimentation.
In the case of high schoolers taking AP classes, the project-based approach encourages teamwork, productive debate, problem solving and creativity. Education experts also say it helps develop skills and confidence.
Teachers Facilitate Student Ownership
What is distinct about project-based learning is that teachers take the role of facilitators while the students do the research, modeling and building. This gives students ownership over ideas and projects, according to Billie Freeland and Nicole Andreas, co-teachers of K-5 STEM classes at Kent City Community Schools in Michigan. Freeland, Andreas and a group of third graders participated in the Lucas Education Research study, working with Michigan State University.
The challenge for their fourth graders in the 2020-21 school year was to design something that uses alternative energy sources to help their community. One student designed a truck that used steam as fuel and picked up trash. Another student designed a solar-powered fan to protect apple blossoms in the spring.
“This challenges us as teachers to direct students in unique paths to learning,” Freeland and Andreas wrote in an email. “We also love the deep connectedness to real-world issues and problems that are addressed through the curriculum.”
Training for Teachers
For project-based learning to work, teachers first need professional training in how to deliver course content. PBLWorks, a leader in project-based learning methodology, trained the teachers who taught the AP classes involved in the Lucas studies. It offers workshops and courses for teachers and administrators.
Based on the results of the Lucas research, the College Board, which administers the AP exams, launched workshops this summer in project-based learning for AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science teachers. PBLWorks designed and ran the workshops; teachers from schools where half of the students are either low-income or minorities could attend free of charge. A total of 493 educators participated in the workshops, including 63 from high-need schools, Sally Kingston, chief impact officer at PBLWorks, wrote in an email.
Training is also offered by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, the High Tech High Graduate School of Education in San Diego, and the EL Education network of schools.
A few public school districts around the country have implemented project-based learning, including Manchester School District in New Hampshire, Pearl City-Waipahu Complex Area in Hawaii, and San Francisco Unified School District, which embraced it after participating in one of the Lucas studies. Education experts say project-based learning has a lot of room to grow, especially after students have endured a year of virtual schooling thanks to the pandemic.
“Parents have woken up to the fact that school is not preparing our kids for the 21st century,” De Vivo says.
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