Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Project-based learning at my school

A recent blog post by Scott Mcleod at Dangerously Irrelevant (http://bit.ly/1s75REQ), in which he highlighted the importance of meaningful student projects, inspired this post of mine. He suggested that in many cases student projects are little more than busy work, which fail to promote higher level thinking skills. A gold standard of project-based learning (PBL) has been suggested by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) as a good way to promote higher-level thinking, involving, for example, in-depth, real-world problems that are more meaningful and engaging for learners (http://bit.ly/1aHgVdo). 

However, in my school, as in many others, there are limitations of time and curriculum-driven outcomes, which can be obstacles for implementing effective PBL. Despite these limitations we do have a number of long-term projects with which students are engaged. Here I will outline the positive features of the Grade 11 science projects that I coordinate, and also the challenges faced both by the learners and the teachers, as the project supervisors.

These projects are interdisciplinary science projects of at least one school year in length carried by small groups of students (four or five per group). In the past I have selected groups to ensure a range of abilities and a gender mix. This year I plan to let students self-select their groups to see if this has any noticeable effect on how they progress with their projects.

One of the key features identified by BIE for effective PBL was student voice and choice. The science projects facilitate this, since students are able to come up with a project idea and research question of their own, or choose a project from a range of suggestions supplied by the science team. Previous examples of student-chosen projects have included an attempt to create a chlorophyll battery, and an investigation into which brand of diapers was most efficient.

The projects are open-ended, and often involve real-world problems, for example another group investigated water pollution in Bangkok canal water. Their results showed an improvement in water quality following the 2011 floods, which they concluded was a dilution effect.

Students sometimes get the opportunity to engage with outside experts, for example one group had a member whose sibling worked in a research lab, so they were able to access equipment and expertise not normally available in a high school lab. Finally, the projects offer great opportunities for collaboration, communication, and creativity, all key 21st Century competencies.

So there we have the positives.  What are the key challenges we face as teachers and learners involved in these projects? Well, as mentioned earlier, time and curriculum constraints are the main limiting factors for these projects. We have no class or lab time specifically dedicated to these projects. They are carried out during lunchtimes, after school, at the weekends, and over school holidays. Many of the students already have a number of extracurricular commitments, such as music classes, sports, and additional tutoring classes. Project supervisors can be available at lunchtime and after school, but only to a limited extent at weekends and over holidays. However, the value added by the projects for learners is, I feel, worth the extra investment in time and effort. Student feedback upon completion of the projects is also overwhelmingly positive.

At a recent STEM education conference in Bangkok, Karl Frearson, Head of Science at Eton College in the UK, suggested another good way to motivate students – cash! So, in a few weeks time this year's project students will be making their final presentations. The students in the year below will attend the presentations to get some ideas for when they come to do the projects themselves. They will also vote for their favourite project, and the winning group will receive a cash prize. Even if we fail to motivate them scientifically, at least they will be able to go and buy some new textbooks!