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Check out these PBL experiences from the Pitsco Teacher Advisory Group

Published December 21, 2020
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Project-based learning (PBL) is generally defined as a student-centered classroom model in which students acquire deeper learning through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. A key part of that definition is “real-world challenges and problems.” In other words, relevancy. PBL seeks to engage students in problem-solving that is both relevant to them and to the world around them, combining classroom and community.

Pitsco believes that hands on is minds on, which leads to student engagement. While our products and programs meet many criteria in the Gold Standard PBL and Framework for High Quality PBL models, we are still moving closer to alignment with them. (See related articles for more on our PBL plans.)

As part of Pitsco’s effort to strengthen PBL connections, we asked members of our Teacher Advisory Group (TAG) how they incorporate PBL into their classrooms. While some examples are closer to the Gold Standard PBL than others, all are great entry points for PBL in the classroom.

A GOOD START

For those just starting out, PBL can be a bit overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be. Even if your first few lessons aren’t by-the-book PBL, just getting students used to project-based learning is a great beginning. Some TAG members recommend you start small, perhaps with hands-on kits that can be easily integrated into other lessons or by simply teaching students about the engineering design process.

  • “I suggest that you start with one of the Pitsco kits for flight of fleet. It can be combined with a reading and writing unit. I loved teaching the students about the careers that can be a goal for their future. Have them start by writing a simple sentence such as, ‘Here are some things that I know about flight. . . .’ I save these to give back at the end of a unit so that they can compare pre- and post-sentences.”
    – Lisa Lewis, Fredericksburg, VA
  • “I try to give students opportunities to practice various math skills with KUBO. Coding the robot helps bring abstract math concepts to life for them. Our after-school-program students have loved Code Cube™! It is an awesome product that allows students to explore coding in a fun and interactive way!”
    – Natalie Vanderbeck, Pittsburg, KS
  • “My favorite PBL project was the Balsa Bridge Building Challenge. Prior to the challenge, students studied different types of bridge structures and then used the Pitsco BridgePak to construct bridge models. The students always loved testing the strength of their bridges and competing to make the strongest/most stable bridge.”
    – Lauren Freeman, Houston, TX
  • “We use the engineering design process in our project, so students are using elements of PBL such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. . . . I have initiated themes for each quarter to increase inquiry and research. This quarter, we are learning about winter with a different focus each week: snow, snowflakes, igloos (we made a milk-jug igloo), polar animals, the arctic, and the Antarctic.”
    – Emma Smith, Broadway, NC
  • “The important thing is to deepen learning beyond the activity or kit by allowing students to make connections to events or problems that might be explained or solved through hands-on learning.”
    – Teresia Harrison, Ada, OK
  • “I love the Straw Rocket Launcher because it teaches students the connection between weight and force, launch angles, rocket design, and so forth. . . . The CO2 dragster is another one of my favorites. I have tools in my STEM lab that allow students to really get into the role of engineer as they build their car. Because all students have the same power, they understand the weight and force relationship, how friction affects speed. . . . They live in the engineering design process by building, racing, evaluating, and improving their car. . . . I love to see their reactions when a subtle change they made pays off by increasing their speed.”
    – Dave Shafer, Indianapolis, IN

ENGAGING HANDS-ON PROJECTS

In true PBL, learning centers around the project. Our TAG teachers gave us a variety of project ideas that make learning fun while keeping it connected to the real world.

  • “Right now, students in my Design and Drawing for Production courses are working on a bridge-building competition tied to Brookhaven National Labs. Students go through a full engineering design process including research, AutoCAD drawings, and building. Bridges get entered to test for structural efficiency against other local schools.”
    – Matt McGuire, Elwood, NY
  • “Every year, we have an amazing project called the Astronaut Job Fair (AJF). This year, it will be located at Rice University and will feature a week of project-based learning activities focused on aerospace education. We incorporate Pitsco aerospace products as an interdisciplinary approach to learning where PBL concepts are paired with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between aerospace, space science, and STEM, enabling the development of STEM literacy and with it the ability to compete in the new space economy. The AJF is a professional space job-training workshop for middle school students ages 9-13.”
    – David Lockett, Lake Wales, FL
  • “As a high school science instructor, I loved involving my students in project-based learning. In physical science, students designed marble races with Rube Goldberg principles that exhibited a minimum of three types of simple machines and were able to continually circulate without touching the marble. Some machines were as small as a student desk while some were built on plywood backing that would not fit in the building. The last week of school, each elementary classroom rotated through the displays as students described their designs and discussed the simple machines involved. Displays were spread out over three classrooms as well as outdoors. This was always one of my favorite days, and while school was ‘over’ for most classes, my students, as well as elementary students, left the school year with an excitement for science.”
    – Teresia Harrison, Ada, OK

MEETING THE GOLD STANDARD

Gold Standard PBL takes the hands-on activities, the student engagement, and the cross-curricular learning to another level. To meet the Gold Standard, PBL lessons must incorporate seven different design elements: Challenging Problem or Question, Sustained Inquiry, Authenticity, Student Voice and Choice, Reflection, Critique and Revision, and Public Product.

A large majority of PBL lessons include most of these elements, save the last one: Public Product. True and complete PBL includes a public or community aspect that enables students to see the real-world connection behind their projects while simultaneously teaching them how to interact with the real world. The following projects by TAG members are great examples of Gold Standard PBL.

  • Local conservation – “PBL is my life in the gifted intellectual classroom. Students are able to create and explore real-world action plans for any unit of study. Recently, they created boats and land vehicles to help with a problem from a local conservation site. Students made boats to remove algae, collect trash, and feed animals. I was amazed at the creative process and ingenuity that transpired during the lesson. We are planning a field trip to the site to share our inspired solutions with the land’s owner.”
    – Lisa Lewis, Fredericksburg, VA
  • Venus flytrap – “I won a grant to study an indigenous plant to our area: the Venus Fly Trap. The students use technology to study soil pH, organic material, moisture, and nutrients.”
    – Denise Wright, Myrtle Beach, SC
  • Winning turbines – “For fifth grade, students use TETRIX® MAX products to design and build model wind turbines that they then collect data on to see who can make the most power. The biggest success I had [with that] was last year. I had students win first place in two regional KidWind competitions, with the student turbines producing more power than any other team in the history of the regional competitions. . . . Two teams traveled to Houston last year to compete in the national competition, and both placed in the top six in the country. A majority of the turbines’ pieces from both teams were made from TETRIX MAX parts.”
    – James Brown, Albany, NY

Resources for starting PBL

Wondering where to begin when it comes to PBL? Not to worry. Our TAG members have some suggestions.

  • Arduino and TETRIX® “The computer science-bound students and their parents like the legitimacy of the Arduino programming and find it to be a great experience for future, more advanced studies. The robust nature of the [TETRIX] platform allows for the study of compound gear trains in our power transmission unit. This furthers the depth and authenticity of our hands-on projects in mechanical engineering.”
    – Everton Henriques, Staten Island, NY
  • Robotics and coding sets galore – “I use all kinds of Pitsco products such as TETRIX PRIME and MAX and CTC Go! Arduino sets. I choose Pitsco for their quality products and the best customer service anywhere! I have never been disappointed in what I received from Pitsco, and my students love the robotics and coding sets.”
    – James Jones, Orlando, FL
  • Student-approved products – “We use several of the Pitsco products, specifically the TETRIX lines. We use several robotics systems within the classroom, and the majority of my students really like the Pitsco products compared to some of the others we use.”
    – Sam Warwick, Maryville, TN
  • Prototyping equipment – “Many times in our projects, we use equipment such as 3-D printers and laser cutters to rapid prototype students’ designs before full-scale products are made. This allows for cheaper and quicker testing of ideas that can then be evaluated and redesigned as needed. . . . Throughout the year, we use [several] Pitsco products such as Delta Dart airplanes; bottle rockets; CO2 cars, cartridges, and timing systems; Scaled House Framing Kits, and more.”
    – Matt McGuire, Elwood, NY

“When I saw it, it took me about 20 seconds to buy in. I understood it. It was hands-on science, it was high-tech, it was student responsibility. It was all the skills that we’ve talked about teaching but traditional labs will not allow.”

– Pat Taylor, headmaster, Jackson Academy, Jackson, Mississippi

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