I love project-based learning. Why? Because my students do. Some of my favourite PBL adventures are the Biology 30 projects due at semester’s end. These aren’t the only projects we pursue throughout the semester; we also work on a number of digital creations. However, these tend to be the most intricate and hands-on.

For the past week, my students have been sharing their projects. They don’t give their presentation at the front of the room (although that’s an important skill to learn too). Instead, we sit in a circle and share. I’ve found doing it this way creates more interaction among my students than the “stand and deliver” in front of an audience.

The topic for this particular biology activity was body systems. My students were to create a project on any system in the body. It’s a really broad topic, I know. I do that on purpose. Over the past two months in class, we’ve studied 5 different systems, but students aren’t limited solely to those. Often students are interested in things we don’t have time to explore in class. This project allows them to do so and reinforces the big idea that the best inquiry begins with high interest.

One of my students created a Monopoly-type board game based on the nervous system. Each of the different properties represented a different aspect. The Community Chest & Chance cards also contained many facts about the system, in addition to the usual penalties or rewards.

But the best part of his presentation, to me, was when he stated: “I really enjoyed doing this. It was a lot of fun — a ton of work, but a lot of fun.” And that’s why I love project-based learning. It allows my students to really focus on, and learn deeply about, things they’re interested in — which often causes them to work hard, enjoy the process of learning, and gain a great deal of satisfaction once they are finished.

Another student researched and created a model of the knee. She has knee problems, and as an athlete, she experiences the real pain of these problems quite frequently. During her presentation, she showed the parts of the knee affected, informed the class how these problems affect her, and described possible treatments and surgical options. It took her hours to create the knee from Plasticine. This is the second reason I love PBL; it often becomes personal, allowing students to understand more about themselves or others they are close to.

A third student created two cakes (shown below) — each depicting a brain state. The cake with large portions of yellow illustrates the activity in a healthy, functioning brain. The brain that is predominantly blue shows the functionality of a brain struggling with depression. Wow. I was shocked to see the difference.


And this is yet another reason PBL can be powerful. It allows students and teachers to see what might often be taught as vague, abstract concepts.

This particular student chose this topic because her family has been deeply and painfully affected by depression. She wanted to understand it better and her project research and inquiry was meaningful to her far beyond the basic knowledge she acquired.

 

We also learned about hip replacements. The father of one of my students is a doctor. She was curious about how hip replacements work, and through his contacts he was able to procure the authentic implants that are used in a hip replacement. How many people actually get to see what those look like? Which is the final reason I love PBL – I learn a ton from my students, and it allows my students to experience the reality that they have new knowledge to offer to those around them. The PBL classroom allows students to learn from each other, as well as me.

My student created a playdough version of the pelvis & hip bones to show how hip replacements fit. During her presentation, she spared none of the gory details of the surgical process. Trust me, it was readily apparent by the looks on my students’ faces who might be successful at pursuing a medical career and who will likely steer clear of it. The intricate detail of the process was truly amazing.  During these presentations I’m often surprised by the amount of complex learning that occurs and the enthusiasm my students have towards it.

While some teachers may wonder about the merits of PBL, I’m sold. My students have learned much more in an inquiry classroom than others did when we had a traditional one. PBL allows them to have a say in what they learn and how they present their knowledge. Every semester I’m impressed by the hard work and energy my students pour into their projects.

It’s not enough for students to learn a bunch of disconnected facts. They need to be able to synthesis them into a comprehensive whole and create something from what they’ve learned. Often they’ll connect them to their lives in ways we could never have imagined.

I love PBL and so do my students. It really makes school worthwhile.

About the author
Shelley Wright is a teacher and education blogger living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in Canada. She teaches high school English, science and technology and works with other teachers interested in connected, inquiry-driven learning. Her passion is social justice and helping her students make the world a better place. She blogs at Wright’s Room. Follow her on Twitter at @wrightsroom.