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One Graduate Student’s Perspective on Project Based Learning

By Barbara Smalla

Every discipline has its acronyms and buzz words and often outsiders simply smile and nod all the while completely baffled by the topic of discussion. Presently, project-based learning (PBL) is front and center in educational discussions. But what exactly is PBL, and why all the hype?

Project-based learning is a method of teaching that involves students in hands-on activities, research, collaboration, team work and projects while attempting to answer a question or solve a problem posed by the teacher. Ideally the question or problem is a real- world, authentic issue. A situation that the students are familiar with is more engaging than a hypothetical scenario. Finding solutions to local pollution, poverty, or soil erosion are good places to start when engaging in a project-based learning activities. Additionally, PBL often includes partnering or collaborating with other classrooms (near or abroad) and/or community organizations.

During my Master’s program in Educational Technology at Western Michigan University I was awarded a teaching assistantship for EDT3470, Technology for Elementary Education (pre-service teachers learning methods of technology integration). I was a lab instructor and part of a four person instructional team for the course. Not knowing what to expect, I was excited to learn that the instructional team1

had recently revamped the program to a project-

based model that makes EDT3470 an engaging experience as opposed to a required drudge. Each of our lab modules was building toward the final project – a team website targeting a specific topic.

In preparation to facilitate the course I delved into the course text: “Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real- World Projects in the Digital Age” written by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss. This book is a fantastic guide and invaluable resource for PBL; the book is easy to read and includes real-world examples of projects that educators can implement with relative ease. Another major PBL resource used in the course is Edutopia, the website of The George Lucas Educational Foundation (

When planning a project-based learning experience, it’s often helpful to start with the end in mind; for my students the end was a student created website that they and other teachers could use in their classrooms once they became teachers. Students formed 3-4 person teams and worked together over the 15-week semester to create assignments to be used in their elementary classrooms. Each assignment was related to their project and would be included on their final website. To this end, I provided students with ideas of what their final website might encompass. Additionally, course leaders from prior semesters had included suggested content within the final evaluation scoring rubric (sample student website: com/site/teachcre8tivity).

Figure 1: 22 | Winter 2010/11

In actuality, each assignment was a technology-integrated project in itself. Throughout the course, students learned how to use various technology tools. For example, we tackled:


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