Real-world problem-solving challenges, like these underway at ACE Leadership High School in New Mexico,  help older students find a meaningful connection between classroom work and their own lives.

Jun 21 2019

Project-Based Learning Engages K–12 Students with Real-World Challenges

PBL advocates say it helps students find relevance and develop a personal connection to lessons.

When Kimberly Head-Trotter, a teacher at McKissack Middle School in Nashville, Tenn., realized how enthusiastic her social studies students were about the civil rights movement, she decided to help them explore the rich history of their own city through project-based learning.

“I’ve always loved PBL because of the real-world aspects you can bring into the classroom and the fact that children are proactive in their own learning,” she says.

Students first read March, a memoir by Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who, as a Fisk University student, was a leader in the Nashville sit-ins. They then got to work developing a virtual museum app, “March Through Nashville,” using ThingLink. This interactive tool let students collaborate on Dell Latitude laptops to create a multimedia narrative using historical documents, 360-degree images, maps, and audio and video clips.

“Bringing technology in just makes it that much more engaging for my students,” Head-Trotter says. “It automatically grabs them. It’s the world we live in now, and it’s how their brains are wired.”

The combination of projects and ­technology takes engagement to the next level, says Principal Thomas Chappelle of McKissack Middle School. Photography by: William DeShazer.

PBL also allowed for multidimensional perspective on topics such as sit-ins, school segregation and nonviolent protests. As an example, one student highlighted the long-term significance of the era by annotating a photo of a 6-year-old African American girl walking into a historically white elementary school in 1957 with a recent video clip of that same girl — now an elderly woman — reflecting on her experience.

Students presented their virtual museum to a panel of experts, including the head of the Nashville Historical Commission, a social studies teacher and an IT specialist.

“The whole project was so beneficial to my students,” says Head-Trotter, who has since left her teaching position in Nashville. “I saw kids who had been very shy suddenly willing to stand up and speak and ask questions, and think about history and their own community in new ways.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about how education technology can even the playing field for students.

PBL Helps Students Understand the ‘Why’ Behind Their Lessons

For Principal Thomas Chappelle, successes like the “March Through Nashville” app have made him a believer. McKissack is now a model PBL school within the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools district, and the goal is to eventually use this style of pedagogy 100 percent of the time.

It provides the learning relevancy that these older students need to really engage and find their purpose in school.”

Tori Stephens-Shauger Executive Director and Principal, ACE Leadership High School

McKissack, which uses Promethean interactive whiteboards and mobile technology carts outfitted with Dell Latitude laptops and Office 365, recently showcased its students’ STEAM projects (in science, technology, engineering, art and math) at an education event held at Tennessee State University.

“It’s just good teaching and learning,” Chappelle says. “We’ve found PBL combined with technology to be one of the best ways to engage students in their academics and expose them to different real-world topics.”

The concept of “learning by doing” isn’t entirely new, but it’s come roaring back into vogue in recent years.

“It really is a phenomenon that is accelerating at elementary and secondary schools all around the world,” says Suzie Boss, coauthor with Jane Krauss of Reinventing Project-Based Learning, Third Edition, published by ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education.

A key reason for PBL’s popularity is that, combined with technology, it provides the real-world relevance needed to fully engage students.

“It allows students to answer that age-old question that they have always asked: Why do I need to know this?” says Krauss. “And that’s because what they’re doing and learning is more like the outside world that they’re going to enter — whether it’s college or career — and how they’ll interact within it, whether it’s problem-solving through collaboration and critical thinking or creating things or having opportunities to learn new technology skills.”

CHECK IT OUT: Here are 5 Steps to a Successful K–12 STEM Program Design

At-Risk Students Gain Practical Skills in Problem-Solving

ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, N.M., has a curriculum based solely on technology-enhanced PBL as a way to retain at-risk students.

Tori Stephens-Shauger, ACE Leadership HS Photography by: Photography by Steven St. John.

“It provides the learning relevancy that these older students need to really engage and find their purpose in school,” says Tori Stephens-Shauger, ACE Leadership’s executive director and principal. “They’re not just doing a project at the end of a book unit. We design real tangible problems, real situations for them to explore and solve, and it sets up kind of a pressure system for learning, where kids are now willing to take some academic risks to learn the hard skill or concept that they may have previously struggled with, just so they can have their answer to this project.”

Among other tools, students have access to Chromebooks and Acer laptops, which they use to complete six projects throughout the year.

ACE Leadership is unique in that all PBL is designed to help students develop problem-solving skills common to three industry areas: architecture, construction and engineering. 

As part of a project highlighting medical innovation, for example, students were tasked with creating a prosthetic hand that included a second opposable thumb. Students used 3D modeling applications such as TinkerCAD, 3D printers and laser cutters to produce their prototypes.

“Some of the results were better than others, of course, but the learning that took place was so much more than just creating the best possible product to specification,” says Stephens-Shauger. “They learned about the history of medical innovation, the engineering that goes into design over time, how to understand and build on precedents that have been set, how to empathize with someone in need of a prosthetic, how to present a prototype to a client, and how to take constructive advice and go back and make improvements.”

LEARN MORE: Read about how modern classrooms are addressing current and future academic and technology needs.

PBL Helps Students Tackle Complex, Ambiguous Subject Matter

Schools don’t have to limit PBL to the upper grades, says Jim Bentley, a middle school teacher at Foulks Ranch Elementary School in Elk Grove, Calif.

For six years, he’s been teaching fifth and sixth graders using the National Geographic Geo-Inquiry process, which is PBL from a geographic perspective.

“Educators have long tried to streamline, simplify or make easy what is really complex, messy, frustrating, ambiguous and challenging,” he says. “A PBL approach allows for a little bit of ambiguity, a little bit of uncertainty to creep back in because you’ve got students working as explorers of thoughts and skills.”

For Bentley, it’s all about “asking questions, collecting data either by going into the field or through research, visualizing information in a way that’s compelling or revealing to other people and then creating a story or narrative that will drive an action.”


The increase in social studies performance among PBL students at high-poverty, low-performing schools, compared with a control group taught traditional curricula

Source:, “Putting PBL to the Test: The Impact of Project-based Learning on Second-Grade Students’ Social Studies and Literacy Learning and Motivation,” November 2018

For example, his students read the novel A Long Walk to Water, based on water scarcity in South Sudan, and then embarked on a project to figure out how to make water more accessible in their own community while also reducing plastic waste.

To explore this topic, he and his students visited 146 parks, restaurants and coffee shops to determine the location of drinking fountains and places to obtain a free glass of water. All of the collected data was entered into Esri’s Survey123, a geographic information system tool, which created a story map about project methods, significance, findings and recommendations.

Ultimately, the students determined that the best solution was to install filling stations for reusable bottles at several sites, including parks, sports complexes and every school within the Elk Grove Unified School District.

In other projects, whether determining the human impact on water quality or how plastic gets from the suburbs to the sea, Bentley has relied on numerous types of technology, from Google Docs and Slides to Flipgrid and video tools.

The key to success, he says, is making sure the tools actually further project goals.

“The wow factor should never be the motivation for why you’d use the technology,” he says. “Technology is a tool that enables PBL, but it’s not the driver. The exploration and the reflection on it — that’s where the learning happens. That’s where the magic is.” 

Photography By: Steven St. John

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