The biggest challenge of educating students is getting them to understand why the material matters, especially when you’re working with STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). That’s why a century-old teaching method is gaining traction from educators: project-based learning.

The advantages of project-based learning are many, and chief among them is the fact that it puts students in the driver’s seat of their education by putting them in complete charge of a project. Through active exploration and deep investigation, the students are seeking practical solutions to real-world problems.

Through the process, students ask questions, debate ideas, design plans, conduct research, analyze their results and in the end, they present their findings to others. In addition to helping them master subjects, project-based learning uses collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.

In the end, students experience the value of seeking knowledge and applying it.

Like anything, there are landmines to avoid in project-based learning. For example, in a group setting, not all students are equally motivated, and tasks may not be equally distributed. While teachers are present to provide guidance through the process, they will have to watch for evidence of the “social loafing” dynamic. And like any project, some students could lose interest, have trouble narrowing the topic or run into a dead end, and may struggle to complete the project on time.  

With good planning and foresight, some of the landmines can be avoided, and educators can make the school year a memorable one for kids of all ages.

Problem: Project-based learning starts with one problem that exists in the real world, and many teachers kick off the project with a discussion about the problem. Think about what you want your students to understand, and how you can present it in a way that has some real-world application. You can seek a solution to a global issue, like water quality, but this educator talks about how your class can discover opportunities to use project-based learning to make a difference in your school. 

Planning: The most essential step is helping students to visualize their model, and it all starts with a brainstorming session. What will it be? What are the steps needed to get there? What’s the cost? Which skills will they need to use? Having a clear, actionable vision is key to a successful project.

Resources: The heart of project-based teaching gives students a chance to chart their course and reach an expert-level knowledge of their topic. During this quest, they should explore multiple tools and resources to pull the information together. As a teacher, that may mean helping your class identify and access the resources they need. Does that mean visiting an off-site location to gather data? Does it mean interviewing a field expert as a group? Which tools, materials or computer software will they need to work on their projects and create their artifacts?

Collaboration: The ability to work together in the workplace is a key skill that will benefit every student. Some students may feel collaboration doesn’t play to their strengths and prefer to work independently. But in the long run, collaboration benefits all students, because it gives them a chance to discuss, share ideas, compromise and work as a team with people they wouldn’t choose to work with. 

Presentation: Everything about this project leads up to a big moment: the presentation. It can be based on the artifact they created, such as a model, a computer program, a book or a video. This gives them a vehicle in which to synthesize and organize what they learned, and pass it along to a large group.

Educator Lauren Ayer says it’s the project that holds students accountable for what they learned. And she encourages teachers to think big: The final project does not have to be limited to sharing with their classroom peers. Because these projects are driven by real-world problems, students could present their findings and ideas to relevant professionals and organizations. For example, if they met with a field expert early in the information-gathering stage, invite that person to hear their findings. Who knows? Their ideas may change the world! 

“You will be amazed by how well students perform when they are engaged in a topic and held accountable for their learning,” says Ayers.