4 inspiring project-based learning plans (for school or the virtual classroom)

By Nancy Penchev

I firmly believe in project-based learning (PBL) because I have seen the results and student empowerment that comes from this approach at the school where I teach. Whether it’s first graders designing a school playground, third graders building visual representations of family stories, or fourth graders creating a theme park, the lessons taught through an integrated PBL approach have a lasting impact for young learners.

In “Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning,” John Larmer, John Mergendoller and Suzie Boss say project-based learning is a powerful teaching method that motivates students and prepares them for college, careers, and citizenship. Among its benefits, PBL helps students meet standards and demonstrate in-depth knowledge and thinking skills, it allows educators to teach in a more satisfying way, and it provides schools and districts with new ways to communicate and connect with parents and communities. According to Edutopia, PBL helps students develop skills for living in a knowledge-based, highly technological society. The experts at PBLWorks say project-based learning engages students in learning that is deep and long-lasting, and inspires for them a love of learning and personal connection to their academic experience.

Our amazing first-grade PBL plan to redesign the playground, which followed the steps created by the Buck Institute, showed us how this method empowers students to dive into learning that matters to them, to be leaders in exploration, and to become experts to others. We saw an opportunity for the students to join the planning team tasked with redoing the playground over the summer. In addition to doing lots of teamwork activities to learn how to work together, they researched playgrounds. They had meetings with the playground designer and landscape architects, who gave them information about what was needed and even gave them a designer toolkit that included pencils, rulers, and protractors. They met with the school nurse to plan for safety issues. They studied mapmaking so they could design a map of their playground and they measured the current playground to include the measurement in their plans. After all of their work designing and drawing, they created models using recycled materials. Finally, they showcased their work in a presentation to their parents, the school administration, and the playground committee. They watched as the playground was built and they eventually got to enjoy their work! They have been so proud to show off to the other students how their work was used to make the playground a fun and safe place.

Our fourth grade class worked on a PBL plan last year to learn Florida history in a fun way. We kicked it off with a viewing of a video about how Disney created the World of Avatar at Walt Disney World. They looked through Florida history, selected topics that interested them, and we made groups based on their interests. Then, they worked together to research their topic and met with an architect to learn about design, space, and the flow of foot traffic at a theme park. Students created a theme park map and decided where each attraction would be located. Some groups created rides that taught content while visitors were in line, while some created escape rooms, shows, and dinner theaters. Others created characters that would teach the content. All the groups had learning and some kind of assessment built into each section, such as a feature stopping a ride until the guest answers a question to continue. After planning, they shared their ideas with older students in California through Flipgrid. The Grid Pals gave encouraging feedback throughout the process and offered ideas for improvement. Our students loved sharing and getting feedback on their work, and even began adopting the vocabulary used by Grid Pals, such as “grow” and “glow.” Finally, our fourth graders built models of their creations and had a presentation day where students, families, and teachers visited their amusement park.

The third graders do a project every year where they select a person or story to showcase from their family history. To develop their ability to write effective questions, we work on active listening and creating follow-up questions from the information they hear and learn. We do practice interviews with administrators from the school and ask grandparents and parents to share their immigration stories. Students take pictures of artifacts from their lives or from their family collection to share with the class. They read the novel “Tobah’s Passage” in their English language arts classes to learn about a fictional journey similar to the real journey many people took to get to America. They interview family members, maybe even the person if they are alive. Then, they take what they learned and write a biography about their person. They create a diamante poem comparing their person to themselves and finally, they create a visual presentation (a timeline, a slideshow, a lego build, a memory book, or a game) to represent their person.

PBL at Home

All of these examples might sound great but teachers might be wondering, “How do you translate these ideas into at-home learning?” It can be done. Below is an example of how teachers can implement this method in their virtual classrooms.

  • Data/Polling: What pet would the school like to have in the innovation lab? Create a document with the students and email it to other teachers requesting they poll their students.
  • Elapsed Time: What type of care does the pet need and how long will it take? Will the teacher be available to do it or can responsibilities be shared?
  • Budgeting/Grant Writing: What type of habitat and food does the pet need initially and on an ongoing basis? Who will cover the cost? Can we get a grant from a local pet store? Will the school store help fund this?
  • Area/Perimeter/Mapping: How much room will the pet’s habitat take up in the classroom and what’s the best space for it? Create a map of the classroom and show the locations where the pet can be housed.
  • Special needs: Is anyone at school allergic to this pet? Interview the school nurse for information.
  • Animal Facts: What do we know about this animal? Research your pet. Prepare an animal fact card that people can read to learn about the animal.
  • Persuasive writing: Watch the persuasive video. Write out your reasons this pet should be chosen. Share reasons with the class and create a script for what each person will say when we have a meeting with the principal.
  • Letter writing: Create a letter inviting the principal to come to our class and hear out persuasive arguments.

These steps can be easily adapted into the home learning environment. Many of these steps involve topics students have already learned during the year, so mini-lessons reminding them will get them up to speed. You, as a teacher, can lead the discussions and research, or you can give them a daily goal to work on and bring their information back. You can create groups to research different pets or you can do the poll, then work on the selected pet together.

What is something your students love? Sports? Travel? Food? Find a common interest and build your PBL plan around that! Add in some math that you have taught in your classroom, sprinkle in a little science, drop in some writing and reading, and make your own PBL recipe!

Want to learn more about how to create PBL plans and see other examples of PBL plans you can take and use in your virtual classroom? Check out the Buck Institute’s PBL Works site for all of this info and more!

Nancy Penchev is an innovation lab teacher and instructional technology coordinator. She has taught ECE-5th grade and currently teaches K-5th grade social studies lab, where kids do STEM-based project-based learning. Penchev founded Girls Building STEAM and is a local award winner for the National Council for Women in Information Technology, plus a 2019 honorable mention for the STEM Excellence award from ISTE. Check out Penchev’s website for more resources and follow her on Twitter @penchevable.

This article was originally published on PBS SoCal’s At-Home Learning initiative.

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