Project-Based Learning in STEM Classrooms: A Complete Educator's Guide
The essence of project-based learning in STEM
Rote memorization? A strict reliance on textbooks?
The essence of project-based learning (PBL) in STEM is a shift from these traditional educational paradigms. Instead, the focus is on immersing students in an active, hands-on learning process where they gain knowledge through experience, discovery, and exploration.
Rather than being passive recipients of information, students become active learners, engaging directly with scientific and real-world problems.
And it's not just about jumping into projects without thinking, either. In order to solve problems, students first have to strategically define the problem.
Researching, comparing, and executing potential solutions are the next steps, which are followed by a critical evaluation and reflection on the outcomes and processes.
Image source: Magnify Learning
This systematic approach ensures that learning is meaningful and comprehensive. It also enables students to apply critical thinking while developing skills that are essential for their future careers.
Much better for turning students into critical thinkers than relying only on traditional models or teacher-centered tasks, don't you agree?
Advantages of project-based learning in STEM
Although the PBL teaching method certainly is more interactive and enjoyable than traditional instruction, having fun isn't its greatest advantage.
One of the most important advantages of project-based learning is the active role that the student takes. Such a student-centered approach is often listed as the number one benefit of PBL.
Image source: Evelyn Learning
Next, bringing PBL into your classroom will help your students hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. PBL encourages students to think critically as they confront real-world problems that demand innovative solutions.
Cookie-cutter solutions from textbooks just don't cut it anymore—students are challenged to think outside the box.
Speaking of real-world situations, it's worth noting that project-based learning mimics the collaborative dynamics of real-life workplaces, where clear communication skills are essential for success.
While it sure is important to know how to work independently, the ability to effectively collaborate with others and communicate ideas is as vital for the small groups in which PBL is usually carried out.
In fact, a Pew survey has shown that people see communication as one of those essential skills that students should be working on regardless of their future education or career paths.
Image source: Pew Research Center
All in all, project-based learning is a powerful tool that helps students gain not only a deeper understanding of the subject area or content knowledge at hand, but also ess@ential life skills they'll continually hone throughout their further education and careers.
Given that STEM teachers may not always have the opportunity to extend learning beyond their main course subject areas, PLB is a valuable framework to implement. It allows students to develop skills in contexts that mirror real-world applications, ensuring a well-rounded educational experience.
Challenges of implementing project-based learning in STEM classrooms
By this point, you might be asking yourself why aren't all schools adopting project-based learning in their STEM classrooms. PBL is easier said than done, and we'll now see an overview of common challenges of implementing PBL so that you prepare effectively and navigate these obstacles with informed strategies.
Resource availability: PBL often requires specific materials, technologies, and spaces that might not be readily available in all schools, leading to potential resource constraints.
Teacher training: Implementing high-quality PBL requires teachers to have a specific set of skills and comfort with more open-ended projects, which can be a shift from traditional teaching methods.
Student motivation: Greater autonomy and independence in learning may not resonate with all students, potentially leading to challenges in participation for those used to more structured learning styles.
Sustaining momentum: Keeping students consistently engaged and motivated throughout longer-term projects requires ongoing effort and creativity from educators.
As you can see, among the challenges listed, only one is directly about students—their motivation.
If you feel confident about addressing the other areas, such as resource availability, teacher training, and sustaining momentum, then you shouldn't let concerns about student motivation hold you back.
After all, there are so many interesting project-based learning ideas that can spark your students' curiosity, transforming even reluctant learners into engaged participants.
Step-by-step implementation of project-based learning
If you've liked what you've seen so far, you might be considering giving project-based learning a try in your own classroom.
To help you get started, we'll guide you through some crucial steps for implementing PBL. Keep in mind that PBL thrives on flexibility and adaptability; the exact sequence and specifics of the steps will vary based on your context, preferences, and the needs of your students.
Still, whatever approach you choose, it will probably start with planning and preparation, so that's the topic we'll see first.
Planning and preparation
Planning and preparation are vital for the successful implementation of project-based learning in your classroom because they set the stage for everything that follows.
Of course, your preparation process should start with choosing the project, i.e., the real-world problem your students will work on.
"What do we want them to learn?
Why is it important they learn this?
What problems or issues would they be able to resolve with the information?
What process do we want them to follow?"
Not every cool idea translates into a meaningful project. In the preparation phase, you have to connect each exciting concept with clear educational objectives, ensuring that what seems engaging also serves a purpose in your students' learning journey. The questions above can help you do precisely that!
The planning phase is also the time to organize groups of students who will work together and define the project scope. You don't want any surprises down the line, so it's crucial to set clear expectations and constraints from the start.
The rest of the process will depend on the project type you choose. Still, examples and other experiences are always welcome, so you can find a possible outline of the following PBL steps below.
Image source: Issuu
Lastly, your prep stage has to cover the materials and resources your students will need for their activities. This means identifying and securing the necessary tools, information, and equipment.
Having everything on hand before the project starts can help maintain momentum and keep students focused on learning, so it's best to tackle this step in advance!
Now, with the abundance of tools available, it would be a missed opportunity not to integrate these resources into your PBL strategy. We're not only talking about cool gadgets you can use to teach electronics or science (although these are incredibly useful, too!).
We're talking about including technology tools, apps, and platforms in the process, as they help with collaboration, research, increased engagement, and project management.
For instance, if you're looking for a specialized project-based learning digital platform, you could check out Cura.
The platform allows teachers a complete overview of the project, from start to finish. The curriculum, resources, tasks, tests, feedback—it's all in one place.
Image source: Cura Education
Students can also submit their work using the platform, where they can see their progress. It's a modern way to polish those project management skills!
However, some teachers prefer not to put all their eggs in one digital basket, so to speak.
Alternatives like combining Google Docs for collaborative writing or research projects, Canva for brainstorming, and employing Kanban boards for task tracking can offer a more flexible and customizable approach.
Image source: Canva
These platforms can be incredibly beneficial for PBL, as they mimic the digital tools students will likely encounter in the workplace, promoting the development of real-world skills and tech fluency.
Essentially, technology in PBL is your friend, so you should encourage students to embrace it. Ask the students to download an app or two, and watch classroom engagement and knowledge retention go up.
Here comes the obstacle that unfortunately often arises when implementing project-based learning—securing funding. Many schools and educators face challenges due to budget constraints. However, there are several possible solutions to this issue:
Grants: Look for grants designed to support project-based learning in STEM education. Organizations and foundations often offer grants to schools that want to implement innovative teaching methods.
Sponsorships: Explore the possibility of partnering with local businesses or corporations. Some companies are willing to sponsor educational activities, especially those that align with their values or industry.
Resource sharing: Collaborate with other educators or schools to share resources and reduce costs.
Educator programs: Look for educator programs and associations that offer discounts or grants for STEM tools and resources.
Advocacy: Be vocal about the importance of project-based learning to school administrators, school boards, and parents. Sometimes, increased awareness can lead to increased funding.
Exploring these options can help you overcome the funding challenge and make project-based learning a reality in your STEM classroom.
Best STEM and project-based learning ideas for your classroom
Okay, now you're ready to try out a project-based learning exercise or two. We'll show you four awesome project ideas that will make your students work collaboratively, think critically, and apply their STEM skills to real-world challenges.
Weather station project
Let's start with a true STEM classic—the weather station project. In this project, students set up their own weather stations to monitor variables like temperature, humidity, and wind speed.
You could go for a more complicated version and build the station yourself, like in this Raspberry Pi Foundation project.
Image source: Raspberry Pi Foundation
If there's a community garden nearby, why not show off your creation there?
For a less DIY, and a more approachable version, you can also choose one of the station designs that grab the weather info from the internet. You can find a list of possible projects here, and pick one that matches the knowledge level of your students.
Image source: Instructables
Either way, this project fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills as students learn about technology and weather patterns.
By observing and recording weather data over an extended period, they can see how weather patterns impact our ecosystems and daily lives, while also learning about environmental sustainability.
In essence, students learn about environmental science, engineering, technology, and data interpretation; all in one project.
If you're looking for hands-on projects that allow you to see how your students work on something that requires equal parts STEM knowledge and creativity, consider 3D printing.
This project is perfect for integrating art, design, and technology, encouraging students to think creatively as they bring their ideas to life.
3D printing lets you go in so many directions: from creating detailed architectural models and functional gadgets to printing parts for robotics, or even creating custom tools for other scientific experiments.
InkSmith offers some great STEM-related 3D project ideas that you can carry out in almost all grade levels.
Image source: InkSmith
A unique aspect of this project is that rather than using ready-made components, students work with their own designs, bringing a personal connection to their creations. It doesn't get more student-centered than that!
There's another twist that you can use to elevate the education experience in your classroom: introducing a contest.
Image source: Brookhaven National Laboratory
For instance, you could organize a bridge-building contest, where students have to put their research skills to the test and find the most efficient designs that can withstand the greatest weight.
Then, it's problem-solving o'clock.
Students will apply skills and develop a better understanding of the principles of engineering and physics, experimenting with different materials and construction techniques.
Image source: Garrett's Bridges
Since there's a contest involved, they'll also get to exercise public speaking while describing their designs.
As you can see, this is a well-rounded project that combines the best of traditional models and fresh approaches to teaching and learning.
CircuitMess robotics project (Armstrong)
As our final idea, we suggest doing a bigger project that will help your students learn soldering and hardware assembly, along with coding in Python and embedded programming. We're talking about project-based learning as robotics as the star of the show!
Don't worry; you don't have to build absolutely everything from scratch. Instead, you could go with Armstrong, an age-appropriate DIY robotic arm.
Armstrong is equipped with a sensor and servo motors, which allow it to perform various tasks, like recognizing colors and picking things up.
The fact that you can code the robotic arm in Phyton or with block coding also means that you can use it as an intro to beginner-friendly programming languages.
This combination of hardware and software challenges makes this project a great opportunity for students to dive into mechanics, electronics, and programming.
We hope that this list of project-based learning ideas has helped you find projects suitable for your students' grade level, your subject, and your educational goals!
Effective assessment in project-based learning
This guide to project-based learning wouldn't be complete without the element that few educators like: grading and assessment.
You likely already have your assessment system in place, so we'll only add a few tips on how to adjust it to fit PBL.
More than the end product: While the final product is important, the learning process (collaboration, research, presenting the solution) should also be evaluated.
Balance individual and group assessment: In group projects, find ways to assess individual contributions as well as the group's collective output.
Self and peer evaluations: Encourage students to engage in self-assessment and peer review as part of the assessment process.
Set clear criteria: Develop detailed rubrics that outline specific criteria for both the process and the final product. This ensures that assessments are objective, transparent, and aligned with the learning objectives of the project.
Building a project-based learning community
If you'd like to make an impact in education beyond your classroom, don't forget about the power of building a project-based learning community.
You could use online platforms and communities to share your PBL experiences with other educators. These can be great places to talk about successful projects, challenges you've faced, and innovative solutions.
Communities are no less important for learners, so you could also encourage students to collaborate across projects and levels, sharing expertise and learning from each other.
Lastly, it's a good idea to involve the wider community. Host fairs or online galleries where students can present their projects to the community that celebrates their hard work. This is also a nice opportunity to see how different cultures approach PBL.
Also, connecting with local business ventures and industry professionals can provide students with real-world insights, which helps increase the relevance of their projects.
PBL can produce great results, so don't be afraid to share yours with the world!
Introduce project-based learning in your classrooms with CircuitMess
So, are you ready to help your students take their learning experience to the next level? If you are, you probably don't want to spend weeks gathering electronic components and drafting instructions, and that's something we can help with.
Our CircuitMess educators program provides STEM educators with an array of educational projects that teach students about electronics and engineering through building real, functional robots and gadgets.
The program makes it easier and more affordable to incorporate hands-on, project-based learning into your curriculum.
With our ready-to-use kits, comprehensive guides, and spare components, you can focus more on engaging with your students and less on the logistics of materials and planning.
We know that the concept of DIY robotics may sound intimidating, but we've got you sorted. Our kits don't require students to have previous coding knowledge, so you can find projects that are suitable for older and younger students alike.
See you in class!