• STEM-Based PBL Projects at a Glance

    By Anne Jolly

    STEM and project-based learning (PBL) are closely connected. In fact, well-implemented STEM projects generally require a PBL approach. That leads to this question from teachers If I’m doing PBL, am I doing STEM? The short answer is – maybe or maybe not. STEM cannot happen without PBL, but PBL can happen without STEM.  Implementing PBL projects doesn’t ensure that the PBL elements focus on STEM essentials.

    The next question, then, is usually: “How does STEM-based PBL differ from traditional PBL? How can I be sure I’m leading a strong STEM-based PBL program?” STEM-based PBL includes traditional PBL Design Elements with a few twists and turns to meet STEM criteria.  Teachers can find STEM-based PBL using an online PBL resource like Defined STEM or they can look at seven of the PBL Essential Design Elements to see how they can incorporate them into a STEM-focused classroom.


    7  Essential PBL Design Elements in a STEM-Focused Classroom:


    PBL Essential Design Element 1: Focus on significant content. All PBL projects focus on students gaining key standards-based knowledge and skills by focusing on fewer concepts and deeper understandings.

    The same is true of STEM-based PBL projects, but these focus on integrating core content and crosscutting concepts from the four STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Using PBL, the project ratchets up the rigor and learning in those specific areas.


    PBL Essential Design Element 2: Focus on developing 21st-Century skillsPBL projects build skills students need for today’s world, such as critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

    In STEM-based PBL, students also learn these skills to help them function in society as emotionally mature workers and collaborators. Over time, STEM students develop competencies in innovation and entrepreneurship, persistence, resilience, resourcefulness, personal and social responsibility, and comfort with 21st-century technology.  One 21st-century skill – collaboration – is important enough to get a special focus in STEM projects. STEM students always work together in teams to plan, design, test, and evaluate solutions for project challenges.


    PBL Essential Design Element 3: Organize tasks around a driving question connected to students’ own concerns and interests. PBL projects are based on a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer and driven by an open-ended, engaging question.

    STEM-based PBL projects also address meaningful problems about which students care. These problems revolve around authentic, real-world engineering challenges, frequently dealing with the local community but sometimes global. The problems are open-ended with multiple possible solutions and include real engineering practices.


    PBL Essential Design Element 4: Encourage student voice and choice. The PBL project allows students to make some choices about the products they create, how they work, and how they use their time.

    This design element is also a STEM-based PBL essential. The STEM problem includes explicitly stated limitations (constraints) and conditions that must be met (criteria) for a successful solution. With those in mind, each student team chooses its own route to designing solutions and products. Note that a vital feature of all PBL is a risk-free environment for making mistakes and learning. Failure is regarded as a natural part of the design process and an essential step toward creating an improved or successful solution.

    PBL Essential Design Element 5: Engage students in sustained inquiry. The PBL project involves an active, in-depth process during which students generate questions, find and use resources, and develop their own answers.

    This constitutes the Research stage of STEM-based PBL projects. STEM research takes many forms, (see this Defined STEM post) and is designed to help students better understand the STEM challenge and increase their chances of finding a successful solution.


    PBL Essential Design Element 6: Incorporate reflection and revision. PBL projects provide opportunities for students to reflect on what and how they are learning, and on the project’s design and implementation. The project includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on their work, in order to revise their ideas and products or conduct further inquiry.

    In STEM-based PBL, revision, and reflection, like research, are incorporated naturally as part of the Engineering Design Process (EDP). This process guides STEM students in a systematic, open-ended way of approaching problems and designing solutions. A quick Internet search brings up several different EDP graphics, but most of them have these steps in common: define the problem, research the problem, develop possible solutions, choose the best solution, create a prototype, test and evaluate the prototype, communicate the results, and revise/redesign to improve the prototype as needed. These steps are iterative and need not occur in a particular order. Feel free to download an EDP for Student Teams from my book website.


    PBL Essential Design Element 7: Create a public product. The project requires students to demonstrate what they learn by creating a product that is presented or offered to people beyond the classroom.

    Absolutely true of STEM-based PBL! Once they have engineered a prototype for solving the problem, STEM projects call for students to effectively communicate their challenge, design, findings, ideas, and recommendations to a wider audience. Team members should also be able to justify their recommendations.

    Note that during any STEM-based PBL project other subjects may be incorporated naturally. The arts, including language arts, are always useful in visualizing and communicating, among other things. However, STEM-based PBL keeps a laser focus on using engineering practices to address specific education needs in science, technology, and mathematics.


    About the Author:
    Anne Jolly
     is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed a nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.

Last Modified on November 22, 2019