Whether students work individually, in pairs, or in groups, having them design something from scratch taps their creative abilities. When using the project-based learning strategy, it is almost guaranteed that the endeavor will be interdisciplinary. The teacher's role is to serve as coach, guiding students to use a variety of resources, employ a strategy that is fun and motivating, and uncover content with depth and breadth.
If we examine project-based learning in the most general way, we can break it down into the following nine steps (of course, teacher-coaches should modify the steps accordingly to suit the task and the students):
- The teacher-coach sets the stage for students with real-life samples
of the projects they will be doing.
- Students take on the role of project designers, possibly establishing a forum for display or competition.
- Students discuss and accumulate the background information
needed for their designs.
- The teacher-coach and students negotiate the criteria for evaluating the projects.
- Students accumulate the materials necessary for the project.
- Students create their projects.
- Students prepare to present their projects.
- Students present their projects.
- Students reflect on the process and evaluate the projects based on the criteria established in Step 4.
Now let's examine how these nine steps apply to a real-life project.
Project-Based Learning Example: The Roman Arch Bridge Activity
When studying transportation and its effects on the economy of Ancient Rome, students in Mr. Jordan's 9th grade social studies class honed in on the Roman invention of the arch bridge. Realizing the depth and breadth of the innovation, Mr. Jordan decided that the students should role-play Roman engineers and design their own Roman arch bridges using paper materials.
Step 1: Setting the Stage with Real-Life Examples
With the help of the school's science teacher, Mr. Jordan set the stage for his students to study the arch bridge. He explained that the major advantage of the construction was that it had a large passage for vessels to pass through. The Roman transportation system was a key priority for continuous military campaigns, as well as for the trade that was carried to all corners of the empire. Mr. Jordan showed the students different types of bridges, demonstrating the differences between the arch bridge and the primitive structures that existed prior to its invention.
Step 2: Taking on the Role of Project Designers
Having his goal in mind, Mr. Jordan assigned the students their roles as engineers for Roman firms. He explained that they were commissioned by the emperor, but had to use paper materials for their model constructions. Each group of two to three students was to be a firm competing with other groups to build a bridge that would meet predetermined specifications and be subjected to heavy weight.
Step 3: Discussing and Accumulating Necessary Background Information
Students conducted research on the arch bridge and learned that the center keystone was critical to distributing weight evenly to each side. They saw the advantage of the Roman arch bridge over post-and-lintel constructions, which did not offer as much clearance for whatever passed beneath. The even distribution of weight created by an arch bridge's keystone made the structure more reliable, adding a degree of stability and security.
Mr. Jordan and his students determined the parameters of the construction, setting strictly defined limits to the length of the bridge and the roadway above.
Step 4: Negotiating the Criteria for Evaluation
Mr. Jordan and his students decided that the projects should be assessed by asking the following questions:
- Did the group design and construct a bridge that employed the Roman arch concept?
- Did the “engineers” try to keep their expenditures low?
- Did the bridge support the weight that was placed upon it?
Once the criteria were clearly defined, the students realized that they might have to be modified in the future.
Step 5: Accumulating the Necessary Materials
The students decided that they would use paper or soft balsa wood and glue or tape to make their arch bridges. Mr. Jordan told them that any material they needed would have to be purchased at a mock store, and they were expected to keep track of their expenditures on an expense sheet. For example, a sheet of paper, representing stone, “cost” $1,000; a tablespoon of glue, representing cement, “cost” $2,000. Mr. Jordan reminded students that construction commodities were very expensive in Ancient Rome. Students decided that the bridge that withstood the most weight and was most cost-effective would win.
Step 6: Creating the Project
Students in each group worked on preliminary sketches and graphic organizers until they decided on a final design. During this stage, Mr. Jordan served as coach, moving from group to group to guide the students' work. As he did so, he asked himself the following COACHing questions (reflective of the COACH Model in Chapter 3):
- Do the students have a clear understanding of the task?
- Does each student have ownership of her role within the group?
- Are the students attentive and working together cooperatively?
- Are the resources that students use geared to their comprehensive
level of understanding?
- Are any groups stumbling in a way that is blocking their work due to
Mr. Jordan's role as coach obtained a clarity of purpose throughout this process. Prompted by the COACHing questions and the GOPER Model, the students used their own intellects to solve problems while attaining a higher level of learning.
Step 7: Preparing to Present the Project
The students in each group prepared for the final stages, discussing whether or not the presentations needed to be rehearsed, or whether display cards had to be written. They also made note of the following:
- Who designed and built the arch bridge
- The cost expended on materials
- What made their design aesthetically appealing
- What they thought was unique about their design
- What made their arch bridge strong enough to hold the weight that was placed on it
Step 8: Presenting the Project
During this stage, students become aware of the ways their presentations meet the criteria of assessment. The teacher-coach observes how engaged they are in presenting their projects. Each group in Mr. Jordan's class showcased its arch bridge to the class, explaining how the design was achieved. Testing one bridge at a time, weight was placed on top of it, to determine how much stress the bridge could bear without collapsing. Not one student was absent on the day of the competition.
Step 9: Reflecting on the Process and Evaluating the Process
In this simulation, the students discussed what they enjoyed about working in pairs or small groups, and how one student's idea would spawn another student's idea. They discussed what they liked about the materials and what they found to be frustrating. Students shared their reflections to note what they had in common and what was special to each pair or to each individual personally. They reviewed the criteria of assessment and discussed how well they met them.
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The chart in the Appendix can serve as an example, and also as a catalyst, for teachers to creatively brainstorm ways to include project-based learning using the workshop model within their curricula. Note that the chart is brief, thus allowing teachers to generate their own ideas for projects that would be applicable to their own areas of specialization.
When students practice decision making and deductive reasoning and are exposed to examples from real life, they are able to expand their skills, evaluate their options, and think critically. The activities in this section help students visualize how events actually unfold by having students conduct research, discuss and write about the material, collect or draw illustrations, and reflect on their work. Students learn from each other by analyzing and synthesizing material, reinforcing main points, and moving information from short- to long-term memory. Most importantly, students “talk content” and write for a purpose, because their work is often presented in front of their peers. We hope that you will use these hands-on, interactive strategies to motivate and engage your students, and to foster an environment that makes learning fun.