Project based learning and the Next Generation Science Standards

Guest blog by Andrew Miller

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for a conceptual shift in teaching and learning. Yes, content is changing in the upcoming NGSS. In addition to traditional subject matter, science and engineering are now integrated into the standards, where students will learn about the principles of engineering and engage in the engineering design processes. In addition, many concepts are cutting across content. For example, the concept “systems and system models” is used in the exploration of nuclear energies as well as ecosystems. Also, scientific and engineering practices are aligned multiple times with the disciplinary content. The NGSS calls for a deeper understanding and application of content. The focus is on core ideas and practices of science, not just the facts associated with them.

While many teachers are already teaching for application of knowledge as well as engineering and core concepts, these key features will cause a deliberate shift in instruction requiring all teachers to reflect on their practice.  Project Based Learning (PBL) is a learning model that not only aligns to these key features, but also strongly supports NGSS-based teaching and learning.

First of all, let’s clarify the difference between projects and PBL. Instead of a curricular add-on at the end, the project is the context for the learning. Students are given an authentic task and a student-friendly driving question to investigate over the course of the project. Within this project, the teacher scaffolds the learning for students and arms students with skills through traditional labs, lectures, and other instructional activities. Instead of teaching all content and skills before the project, the teacher teaches through the project, which is engaging and relevant to students. Using a “need to know” list generated by students, and revisited through the project, the teacher gives lessons and instructional activities to meet the needs of students. Students learn 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. The project has an audience outside the four walls of the classroom, and students create a variety of products for this authentic audience. These are just some of the essential elements of a PBL project.

Just as the draft NGSS calls for deeper understanding and application of knowledge, PBL demands the same. When teachers design PBL projects, they pick power standards to focus on, standards that usually take significant time to teach and focus on depth, not breadth. The NGSS are being designed to be those type of standards and thus easily used when designing a PBL project. In fact, a teacher designing a PBL project might target one of the crosscutting concepts, as that concept permeates the entire year of content.  PBL calls for in-depth inquiry into the content. Students investigate a rigorous driving question, and do so by unpacking it into many subject questions. In addition, they must apply this knowledge as they construct products that answer the driving questions and complete the project. The product reflects a deep understanding of content, as students have reflected and revised throughout the learning process. It’s not just one encounter with the content per se, but multiple encounters.

As we notice the new engineering focus of NGSS, we might consider design challenges, a key component of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. However, design challenges are not necessarily PBL by default. One can take a design challenge, add some PBL essential elements to it, and make it into a PBL project. A common design challenge is to build an effective bridge, either physically with toothpicks, or digitally using a tool like SketchUp. However, there are some components that need to be added to it to make it truly a PBL project. Right now, the bridge is a great activity. In fact, it can be a great activity within the PBL to scaffold material. To make it PBL, students could make recommendations for retrofitting a local bridge and present this information to city officials and engineers.  Yes, the product might be a bridge design, and yes, students may engage in a toothpick contest along the way. The difference is the work goes outside the four walls of the classroom, and actually is an authentic situation, where students are engaged in real-world work. As the design process and other components of engineering are leveraged in the NGSS, PBL projects can be designed to teach and assess these standards.

The NGSS will need to be met with pedagogical models that can leverage the required depth of understanding, and PBL can meet that challenge. PBL provides the strength of inquiry, rigor, and relevance that can capitalize on the key components of the NGSS.



Andrew Miller currently serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD. He travels internationally, working with educators in his many areas of expertise. Andrew is an avid blogger for a variety of organizations including Edutopia and the education section of the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @betamiller.

This entry was posted in Ask a Mentor and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

One Comment

  1. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Early childhood educators interested in the project approach can learn more from Dr. Sylvia Chard and Dr. Lilian Katz, at The Project Approach

    You can also search past issues of the online journal, Early Childhood Research and Practice from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to read about many kinds of projects.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>