Project Based Learning

Inquiry Science, Project Based Learning, Webquests, Real World Learning….all of these education buzzwords have one thing in common:  they are intended to shift the focus from the teacher imparting information to students to the students developing and creating their own content and learning experience.   These models have been around since I started teaching, and we have probably all used variations of them.   Technology has allowed a significant increase in the number of resources available for teachers wanting to use this type of learning system.

student at computer

The early days of the internet had limited resources and many of the projects involved sending students to a website and having them read information there and answering questions.  I still use this format for reinforcing concepts and terms, such as this page on the cell mitosis, where students view a couple of different websites and answer questions.   This worksheet is fine for helping students learn the details of cell mitosis, but I wouldn’t call it particularly challenging, nor does it promote higher order thinking.


As content on the web became more robust, the webquest became a popular idea and tool for teachers to promote higher level thinking.  These quests would often require students to work in teams, address a problem and develop a solution together.  A webquest follows a set format (introduction, task, process, analysis, and conclusion).  I found a comparable mitosis webquest through a search at webquest.org.  There are many of these quests, covering a variety of topics, and you can even make your own to share with others.

I think the webquest model is somewhat dated, and I’ve been modernizing many of my old webquests.  I’ve eliminated the introduction-task-process model because it seems a little clunky now.   The term “webquest” also seems a bit dated, because there is so much more out there than just websites, there are apps for your phone, collaborative learning tools, concept maps, and community initiatives, so I’ve rearranged the furniture and relabeled some of  these old webquests.   Now, you’ll find many of them under the category “projects” and most will include an extra component that requires students to create an artifact and publish or share it in some way.   This is taking advantage of many of the new tools that allow collaboration and sharing and social networking, and is meant to align with the  Common Core Standards.

Web Based Projects allow students to address real-world problems, or investigate a past problem or scientific discovery.  I would love for my students to understand that science is a process, but too often they only get the end of that process, the fact, law or the theory that someone years ago in a musty lab somewhere.    I want my students to be enthusiastic about discovering things themselves, or seeing new patterns and making connections.  Have you ever observed your students when they are in the computer lab and are allowed to freely surf the web?   They bounce from one place to the other, look for pages on their hobbies, favorite bands and games.  The internet is about discovery, and there must be a way for educators to channel that energy.

I had great success with a project on epidemics:  Outbreak: A Webquest on Epidemics  which required students to investigate an epidemic or disease of their choice and publish a website or presentation about the disease.   They really seemed enthusiastic about this project, and many of the publications exceeded my expectations, take this website a student made about The Black Plague.     I would like to add more of these types of projects in the future, and I have one in the works for spring that involves locating and identifying trees in their area.  In “Getting to Know the Trees“, students will use their phones or cameras to photograph trees and post the images and identifications on a shared bulletin board.  The end result will be a large collection of local trees from their area all organized into one board.

Social networks can also be useful in projects, check out Edmodo for a safe social network for your class.  In an early assignment designed to help students become familiar with Edmodo, I had them post a photograph of an unusual animal and tell the class something about it.   What was interesting about the assignment is how much energy they put into finding that one animal that was going to be the most unique animal of all, we had photos of axolotls, echidnas, red pandas and carpet sharks.     The intent of the assignment was just to get them to use Edmodo and learn how to post and share information, but they students went way beyond that and spent a week trying to find that perfect animal.

In the end, projects I design  are about manipulating  information, synthesizing  knowledge, and sharing that information with others.    I really believe the NCLB has stunted students’ intellectual growth.  In the mad dash to cover every single topic that could be on the test,  we’ve lost the time and resources to truly challenge these kids and provide them with an academic environment that fosters the learning of complex  skills such as critical thinking, communication, and problem solving.