Photo by Wayne Mennecke

Project-Based Learning



7th grade students from Tualatin Valley Academy working on a habitat restoration project. – Forest Grove, OR –  |Photo by Phil Kahler|

Looking back on everything I was taught in school, I realize that a lot of things have changed from my primary school classes to today. The primary colors are red, blue and green, not red, blue and yellow. Pluto is no longer a planet. Birds are reptiles. As the body of knowledge scientists have access to rapidly increases with modern technologies, much of what I have learned in school, even in college, has become modified, altered, or obsolete within as little as a decade. This tells me that my success in life will not be measured by my ability to memorize ever changing information and write it down on exams, but rather, how I can apply this information and adapt to a field that is constantly evolving.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a learning style that deviates from the norm by focusing on applications of what is learned in class, rather than just rote memorization of it. The goal of PBL is to teach students skills that are applicable in many fields outside of the classroom, such as creative problem solving, collaboration and compromise, and critical thinking.  An example of a PBL project can be a science experiment, where a student makes an observation, drafts a hypothesis and predictions, and then tests this hypothesis! In a society where emphasis on creating value is greater than just performing repetitive tasks, PBL is an incredibly resourceful tool in helping students learn.

Pamela Evans - Student Project

Students put on their thinking caps while building blue bird boxes with park volunteers for the nature trails. – Sullivan, IL – |Photo by Pamela Evans|

While I have had many positive experiences through learning by doing, there are also various studies which support this idea. For example, in a student-oriented charter school in Minnesota, which routinely incorporates PBL, several years of graduates were surveyed on what skills were most important to learn in school. Things like note taking and test taking were ranked near the bottom, but information finding and creativity were ranked extremely high. These students were also very successful, with more than half going on to receive a Bachelor’s degree, in contrast to the national average, which is only about a third of high school graduates (Wurdinger et al 2009). Other studies conducted in different countries found that students were more engaged in what they learned after completing PBL projects. In a study on student teachers in Turkey (who were focused on teaching  environmental sciences), students were more likely to adopt sustainable behaviors after completing project based learning projects, versus only learning about sustainable behaviors in class. In short, giving students the opportunity to interact directly with what they are learning is more likely to leave an impact on them and change their future attitudes and behaviors towards what they are learning (Kilinc 2010).

Project Based Learning may very well be one solution to the STEM crisis in America. Students who struggle to visualize things like cause and effect relationships in nature could benefit from doing a hands-on science experiment outside. PBL allows students to learn by doing– to engage in the process of science themselves. BirdSleuth contains various tools and resources, such as our Investigating Evidence lessons, which can help you guide your class through their first science experiment!

By: Amanda Nichols, BirdSleuth student intern 

Sources cited:

Kilinc, A. (October 01, 2010). Can Project-Based Learning Close the Gap? Turkish Student Teachers and Proenvironmental Behaviours. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 5, 4, 495-509.

Wurdinger, S., & Rudolph, J. (January 01, 2009). A Different Type of Success: Teaching Important Life Skills through Project Based Learning. Improving Schools, 12, 2, 115-129.


Going further for educators: Our new self-paced course, Integrating Inquiry for Educators: Developing Student Science Practices, is designed to help educators explore the process of inquiry and scientific investigation, especially as inspired by outdoor observations and citizen-science participation.

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