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Putting kids to work on meaningful projects can transform classrooms into beehives of inquiry and discovery, but relatively few rigorous studies have examined how well this teaching method actually works. An encouraging new report describes preliminary, first-year outcomes from a study of 3,000 middle school students that shows kids can, in fact, learn more in science classrooms that adopt a well-designed, project-focused curriculum.

When researchers analyzed test scores from those classrooms by students’ gender and ethnicity, there were no differences in learning performance. That’s a preliminary indication that high-quality project-based curricula might be able to help narrow the science education achievement gap in children from low-income backgrounds or other groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields. The project-based science lessons “seem to work for all kinds of kids,” said report co-author Christopher Harris, a senior researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, California. “Girls and boys learned at similar rates in this study.” He believes that the personal engagement in meaningful classroom activities that teachers can create through such curriculum materials “makes a difference.”

How well the benefits hold up or grow in the second year of implementation remains to be seen. But the researchers see project-based inquiry learning as a promising strategy for helping school systems move toward new U.S. science education standards that were released last year.

Access to good science curriculum materials is a “vexing issue,” Harris said. In urban public schools, science textbooks are often 10 years old and the standard curricula “provide very few opportunities for students to really engage in the science, beyond emphasizing the scientific canon or the knowledge that’s been developed over time,” he said. “They typically don’t have a hands-on approach.”

To move beyond the rote memorization of disconnected science facts that traditional instruction tends to emphasize, in 2011 the U.S. National Research Council laid out a new framework for revamping K-12 science education. The Next Generation Science Standards embody that framework and aim to teach kids some of the core thought processes and practices that scientists and engineers use to investigate natural phenomena and solve problems.

Meeting those new standards will likely require a considerable shift in how schools teach science. Project-based inquiry learning programs seem well suited to be part of the solution: They get students to participate in educational projects in the same basic ways that scientists would, with activities organized by important “driving questions” that are relevant in science but also meaningful for kids, Harris said.

Putting Project-Based Science Classes to the Test

One such curriculum for grades 6-8 is Project-Based Inquiry Science (PBIS). Originally developed in the ‘90s at several universities with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), it incorporated the latest research knowledge on how students learn and how teachers can best teach them. An education publishing company named It’s About Time brought the curriculum to the commercial market.

Currently, PBIS is one of the few curricula available that are fully aligned with the new science standards, and its structured activities emphasize core practices such as carrying out investigations, constructing science explanations and developing and using models. For instance, one physics project poses the driving question, “Why should I wear a helmet when I ride my bike?” – an inquiry that’s compelling because it connects directly to kids’ everyday lives, Harris said. To answer it, students work on a series of activities leading them to explore related questions that build their knowledge of the principles of force, motion, acceleration and gravity, so that they can grasp how a helmet would protect their heads from the impact of a potential collision. With guidance from their teacher, “they’re conducting investigations, but there’s also supports for kids to collect data, organize it, analyze it, share it, debate it, argue about it”—similar to how real-life scientists work, he said.

In an SRI research effort funded with a $5 million NSF grant, Harris recently conducted a randomized controlled trial of whether the PBIS materials are effective. Project collaborators included William Penuel of the University of Colorado and Joseph Krajcik, a Michigan State University professor who helped develop the new U.S. science standards as well as the original PBIS curriculum.

The experiment took place in sixth-grade science classes at 42 middle schools in a large, ethnically diverse urban public school district during the 2012-2014 academic years. About 55 percent of the pupils were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Half of those schools adopted PBIS curriculum units for physical science and earth science, with their teachers going through professional development training (provided by It’s About Time) in project-based teaching and the next-generation science standards. The rest of the schools taught science the traditional way, but their instructors also received training in the new standards. Almost 100 teachers and more than 3,000 students participated.

On average, kids in the project-based physical science classes performed roughly 8 percent better on an end-of-unit learning assessment than the kids in traditional classes. (Because the course content was new, the researchers also had to create entirely new assessment tests, which required a lot more demonstration of critical thinking skills than standard multiple-choice science tests.) That’s an improvement that would lift a student who scored in the 50th percentile on the test to the 58th percentile – a gain that “is actually really good for an education intervention,” Harris said. Pupils in the PBIS earth science classes showed a similar trend toward stronger scores, but that increase wasn’t statistically significant.

“It takes at least two years for teachers to become comfortable with new curriculum materials,” Harris noted. Nonetheless, instructors in year one of the trial were able to use the project-based materials “relatively effectively to support the kind of science learning called for in the new standards. We are very interested to see what the analysis will show for year two.”

Barriers Ahead – and the Potential Payoff

The research team is now analyzing data from year two and will evaluate how well teachers implemented the project-based curriculum. While the approach clearly engages students more, potential barriers to its wide adoption include the fact that it is resource intensive, Harris said. School districts have to buy not just the book and teacher’s guide but also the materials for classroom activities. Each PBIS unit costs roughly $23 per student.

And teachers need substantial training, including support throughout the school year, to learn how to coordinate kids to collaborate well on projects, and to ensure that important scientific concepts bubble up and get discussed. So project-based learning is generally a huge investment for school districts and more work for the teachers, but many of them “find that the hard work pays off,” he said.

Harris hopes to see more project-based science curricula coming out that are keyed to the new standards and grounded in research on learning. Such materials are badly needed in elementary schools, because too many children don’t get exposed to good science instruction on a consistent basis until middle school, he said. Catching kids earlier to help them see the big picture of what science is about could spark their excitement – and perhaps inspire new generations of young scientists from diverse backgrounds that STEM disciplines are greatly in want of.

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  • gary curts

    gar

    • Gary Robert

      BRAVO!! This is what
      I have been extolling for the past 15 years. DOING and learning
      science in context is a far superior method than giving notes and worksheets
      and having students sitting passively in the classroom. I also have
      looked critically at PBIS for the past several years and have fallen in love
      with it. I am a high school Physical Science teacher and HAVE taught with
      a Project-based book since 2000. The opportunities to help students learn
      STEM and 21st Century Skills and work with them on their metacognitive skills
      is paramount to your program’s and students success!! Project-based
      leaning provides that vehicle to do that. PBIS wholeheartedly supports
      the NGSS’s 3 prong design. The science and engineering practices and the
      crosscutting concepts are literally embedded in the book and come to life when
      working on the content performance expectations. They are literally
      intertwined and that’s the way it should be. I spent this past week in
      San Diego at the California STEM conference and made the following statement
      several times to Middle School Science teachers: If I were to die and
      come back, I would choose to come back as a Middle School Science teacher so
      that I would be able to teach science using the PBIS program!!! I am very
      passionate about that statement. This is my 37th year in the science
      classroom.

  • Mary Fassbender

    We have been using the PBIS units for the past 5 years. This year we have moved to standards-based grading and these units have meshed easily with our grading standards that center around the NGSS “Science and Engineering Practices.” Students are engaged and learn how to think and act like real scientists!

  • SometimesAngryProf

    Who allows children to work with glassware without wearing eye protection??!! It’s also pretty tacky and unprofessional of KQED to post such a photo, which at least passively endorses such poor safety practices. It certainly diminished their credibility as a progressive source of news and information. For shame KQED!

    • Tom Doody

      Pretty sure they are using water with food coloring to explain the concept of dilution or mixing in solutions. And the goggles and lab coats aren’t cheap. But yes, in a real lab environment (they are in a classroom!) that would be appropriate. I think showing 5th graders in lab coats and wearing gloves might make one think they are testing acids and bases, which I seriously doubt.

      • SometimesAngryProf

        Silly loosey goosey non-scientists making their laissez faire, uniformed comments. Reasons for eye protection: 1. Shards of glass in eyes…2. Impaired vision… 3. Institutional Liability… It’s NOT zero risk!

    • BL

      Holy. Miss the point much? This article is about learning through authentic experiences – a very powerful and engaging method of teaching. The photo doesn’t diminish anything if you don’t pay attention to it…it isn’t important.

      • SometimesAngryProf

        I agree that the activities are inherently important, but overlooking safety is not recommended. Do the research. Shards of glass cause EYE DAMAGE. BL? Blind Leader…?

      • Kathryn from NZ

        I agree. Most of us who come to this site are far more interested in learning more about PBL than reading through the banter of two people. Most of us are more than capable of making our own conclusions about the picture. Most of us who teach science know what is appropriate and what is not.

    • Joe Davis

      So do you have your kids where lab coats and safety goggles when they get a glass of water, or do you only allow them to use plastic cups?
      Boo!

      • SometimesAngryProf

        BOO to you, Joe!! Silly loosey goosey non-scientists making their laissez faire, uniformed comments. Reasons for eye protection: 1. Shards of glass in eyes…2. Impaired vision… 3. Institutional Liability… It’s NOT zero risk!

        • Joe Davis

          I’ll take that as a ‘no’.

          • SometimesAngryProf

            Try again, Joe. You didn’t ask a question that requires a “yes” or “no” answer. I can’t say I’m surprised by the lack of clarity or succinctness I’m sensing from you. After all, your comments imply that allowing children to handle potentially hazard materials (yes, glass will cut human tissue!) is not worthy of caution.

            I can guarantee that a professional organization such as the American Chemical Society would not post such a careless photo. Of course KQED cares more about the esthetics than what’s proper. Sure, put the children at risk as long as it looks good. Gimme a break!

          • Joe Davis

            It appears that you only looked at the form of my question and didn’t read it. ‘No’ is a perfectly good response to either clause. I see now you are being willfully ignorant and must conclude you are a troll.

            I will resist the urge to respond further to your inane objections about a photo.

          • SometimesAngryProf

            Poor Joe. He has to resort to name-calling, which also doesn’t surprise me whatsoever.

            There’s a simple (well, maybe not-so-simple for Joe) arithmetic issue here (among other elementary issues — perhaps infantile in Joe’s case). Joe claims that “No” is “a perfectly good response to either clause,” yet there are two clause in the question he posed. Thus, a solitary “No” would not be “a perfectly good response,” as suggested by his post above.

            There are four possible permutations and not one single response to your two-clause question, Joe: “No and No”, “No and Yes”, “Yes and No” and “Yes and Yes.”

            The only thing missing from “Joe” to fit his logic like a glove is the letter “k” —> Joke!!!

            I’m laughing loudly at you, Jo(k)e!!!!

          • Joe Davis

            I rest my case.

          • SometimesAngryProf

            Great!! The rest may do wonders to help you make a logically sound argument.

            Sweet dreams, Jo(k)e!!

      • Chemteacher

        As a chemistry teacher I always reply to this kind of protest from my students that I am only responsible for your safety in my classroom. The safety rules are meant to not only protect the student from injury but also the teacher from law suits.

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  • Kelli Iannacone

    Goggles and aprons, anyone? Choose a safer photo, please. Thank you.

    • George Sutherland Howard

      Waft it! Don’t smell it directly, waft it!

    • Tom Doody

      Pretty sure they are using water with food coloring to explain the concept of dilution or mixing in solutions. And the goggles and lab coats aren’t cheap. But yes, in a real lab environment that would be appropriate.

      • Pam

        I was the new teacher and had to teach chemistry in a regular classroom without hoods or sinks or burners. (The other four science teachers had these). The result? I needed to use “kitchen” chemistry, using food for labs and demonstrations. No goggles or lab coats required, which is good, since I would have had to provide them out of my own pocket.

    • Aleta Boddy

      Do kids need to wear goggles and an apron when mixing cake batter? No? Then why would they need them for what they’re doing in the picture?

  • Eric Scoles

    To me this gets at the whole difficult-to-explain concept of “knowledge work.” We claim to want kids to aspire to “better” jobs – ‘knowledge work’ jobs, we’re told, are what those look like now, but experts have had a hard time showing people what ‘knowledge work’ looks like.

    Well, it looks like teams working on projects. It doesn’t look like people memorizing and regurgitating facts, or using a single small set of tools to do the same thing over and over again.

    So not only does this kind of approach get better results when judged against the existing performance criteria — it more closely resembles a real work environment. At least, the one we claim to want the kids to aspire to, and let’s face it, if they have to, they can learn to do the less sophisticated things if they know how to really solve problems in teams.

  • Ekthompson

    My child attends a middle school that is taught almost entirely through project-based learning. It is very successful. Check out clccharter.org.

  • Victoria Glazar

    The Technology Student Association administers a program that provides middle- and high school Science teachers an engaging, project-based approach to teach coding and app development. Over the past two years, more than 2,000 schools have participated. More information is available here: http://appchallenge.tsaweb.org/

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  • Briana

    i have not even read the whole article yet but YES! YES! YES!….kids love doing rather than memorizing and listening!!! it is an experience rather than a assignment. It works in ALL subjects!!!

  • darlene

    They’re still studying this? I was taught this is grad school in the 70s and used it for 35 yrs of science teaching in elementary and middle school.

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  • Beth Gorak

    So excited to read this! We have been using PBIS for over 5 years in our school district. I have seen such great results with my students but love to read that research shows that it really does work. This program is engaging not only for the students but also for the teachers. As a former scientist this is the first program I have found that really puts the learning in the students hands and lets them work as a real scientist. It gives them skills that they will use long after they have left my classroom!

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  • DonnaLC

    There is great misunderstanding of what “engineering projects” are. As the Next
    Gen Science Standards point out on this page, third paragraph: http://www.nextgenscience.org/three-dimensions – “science experiments” are not “engineering projects”.

    Most of this misunderstanding comes from the simple fact that there are more Science teachers/curricula than Tech/Eng Ed teachers/curricula – the “TE” in STEM.

    For example, the following paragraph from the article talks about the “project” of answering the question about wearing a bike helmet. All legit. BUT, this is a science experiment, not an engineering project. IF it was an engineering project, the students would be _designing_ and _making_ simulated bike helmets and testing them! It’s a crucial distinction. This is not a criticism of science investigation just a clarification of what the TE in STEM is and why a STEM workspace requires a range of tools/equipment.

    “Currently, PBIS is one of the few curricula available that are fully aligned with the new science standards, and its structured activities emphasize core practices such as carrying out investigations, constructing science explanations and developing and using models. For instance, one physics project poses the driving question, “Why should I wear a helmet when I ride my bike?” – an inquiry that’s compelling because it connects directly to kids’ everyday lives, Harris said. To answer it, students work on a series of activities leading them to explore related questions that build their knowledge of the principles of force, motion, acceleration and gravity, so that they can grasp how a helmet would protect their heads from the impact of a potential collision. With guidance from their teacher, “they’re conducting investigations, but there’s also supports for kids to collect data, organize it, analyze it, share it, debate it, argue about it”—similar to how real-life scientists work, he said.”

    • Amber

      Have you read the PBIS curriculum, or are you just commenting from reading the article? Journalism requires that reporters distill information into bites that are easily digestible for those uninitiated in the topic, and often something is lost in the translation. I assure you that PBIS contains a healthy mix of science inquiry and engineering design, and that the researchers who developed it were very much coming at it from a technology/engineering background.

      • DonnaLC

        The focus of the article is “project-based” learning. It is a reasonable
        expectation that any example given is going to reflect that. it is not up to the reader to supplant what is in the article with what the reader might like to see. Amber, can you give some specifics on engineering design projects that are in the curriculum. Your assurance is insufficient to convince me that I am on the wrong track here.

    • Walter Martinez Marconi

      I agree with you that there are differences. I have not read the PBIS curriculum, but hope they include programming languages now.

  • This is a terrific article. I found it through the Beautiful Nation Project (http://www.beautifulnationproject.org/blog/hands-on-science-education-closes-achievement-gap) I especially agree with this statement “Catching kids earlier to help them see the big picture of what science is about could spark their excitement – and perhaps inspire new generations of young scientists from diverse backgrounds that STEM disciplines are greatly in want of.” Keep up the great work!

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  • Joe Davis

    I would be more interested in evaluations that rated students’ engagement and attitudes toward subjects in which project based modules were used.

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  • Walter Martinez Marconi

    I’ve been doing it for 15 years at an entry level college engineering technology class- I even came up with a robotics kit with experiments http://roboticscity.com Used to use Legos, but I didn’t think it provided enough knowledge to the students. There is nothing like knowing about components, its properties and connecting it with the right polarity or you will fry a sensor for example. Legos, you plug it in and it works. Too much plug-n-play. How about learning how to read a schematic to wire your circuit for that robot you are building or C/C++ programming instead of drag and drop . 5th grade and up are able to understand these concepts.

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Author

Ingfei Chen

Ingfei Chen is a freelance writer in Northern California whose work has appeared in Scientific American, the New York Times and Smithsonian.

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