At my New Hampshire school, Sanborn Regional High School, project-based learning (PBL) is helping students connect with their world and their community in ways that a classroom experience never could.

Instead of sitting in a classroom learning about biology from an outdated textbook, last spring every sophomore in my school participated in a joint partnership between the school, the local conservation commission and the University of New Hampshire.

Students traveled to a local lake to determine why the south edge was filling with vegetation, why this was a problem and what they should do about it. After collecting and analyzing data, they determined the root cause of the problem. They returned, shovels in hand, ready to help properties owners implement solutions that included the establishment of rain gardens and vegetation buffers.

This project was a culmination of a year's worth of work with their "pod," a small learning community that includes 67 students and three teachers that integrate the subjects of language arts, biology, and government and civics. Every sophomore participates in this PBL small-learning community model.

At many schools around the country, project-based learning is transforming classrooms by creating student-centered environments where teachers can act as facilitators of learning, coaching students as they use critical thinking, problem-solving and inquiry to make sense of their world.

Jennifer Rita Nichols of TeachThought published 10 Practical Ideas for Better Project-Based Learning in Your Classroom. Her strategies dovetail well with the project described above and include the following:

  • Have students work small groups or pairs whenever possible.
  • Focus on skills rather than topics.
  • Give students guidelines that promote personalization and individuality.
  • Encourage students to take on different roles when collaborating.
  • Allow students creative choice with regards to their final result.
  • Change the way that projects are displayed and presented by including creative displays with articles, e-books and videos.
  • Grade projects with a standards/competency-based approach that puts the emphasis on the attainment of targeted skills.
  • Consider projects that integrate multiple disciplines and content areas.
  • Give the project a purpose beyond the classroom.
  • Incorporate the project into the student’s digital portfolio.

An important and necessary part of PBL is research. Sixth-grade teacher Lindsey Fuller from Decatur, Ill., speaks about the importance of embedding 21st-century digital research with your students when you engage in PBL in a recent article on Reading Today Online.

She recommends tools such as Article Search and WolframAlpha for general research, Yahoo Kids, Internet Public Library’s Kidspace and Fact Monster for search engines that can provide students with starting points for their work, and EasyBib and Citation Machine to help students properly cite their sources in their work.

If you are a school administrator or a teacher looking for a way to get started with PBL in your school, the Buck Institute for Education maintains a list of resources on its website to help you get started. These resources include videos, webinars, articles, books, rubrics, planning forms and blogs.

How will PBL transform the classrooms at your school?