How Project-Based Learning Preps Students for Tech Careers

See why textbook learning is making way for more project-based learning, an emerging approach that takes STEM knowledge and students' own interests and combines them into projects that demand individuality and critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

By Marty Graham, Contributor

Brian Delgado decided to make math a blast for his eighth grade students. Four teams designed and built their own rockets powered with water and pressurized air. They learned about motion, mass, scalars and vectors, distance and displacement. They researched and collaborated, divided up tasks and learned to communicate with each other. Plus, they got to launch rockets.

For Delgado, the project was part of a larger teaching philosophy. Instead of having his students memorize things and complete abstract textbook problems with a ‘right’ answer, he prefers to engage kids in his classes. In addition to the students spending a semester designing, planning and building the rockets, they write a user’s manual to go with it—and are graded on the launch.

“It’s a perfect example of project-based learning, the collaboration and teamwork [around] the real world issues,” said Delgado, who teaches physics at High Tech High in San Diego. “This was an authentic experience, and you can be sure that these students will remember what they learned here. It really sharpened their critical thinking skills.”

Cultivating a Real-World Voice

High Tech High is a charter school that pioneered project-based learning as a means to foster interest and enthusiasm for STEM and STEAM (STEM plus Arts) education. The school grew from a single campus to 13 schools, with the 14th opening later this year.

As schools look for ways to prepare kids for the workforce ahead, they’re finding that this approach helps nurture skill sets that won’t be displaced even with the rapid developments in technology.

“The world changes so swiftly and technology changes even faster,” said John Larmer, editor-in-chief for the Buck Institute for Education, which promotes and trains teachers in project-based learning. “Many of the things we were taught we don’t need. You can look up state capitals in an instant.”

Of course, he wasn’t willing to concede all of the basics. Fifteen years from now, employers may not need coders if artificial intelligence can do the work. They may not need drivers and cashiers. But employers will need people who can collaborate with others, who have critical thinking skills and know how to think through, organize, and manage a project, Larmer explained.

“Project-based learning promotes critical thinking, it give kids power and voice,” Larmer said. “A key question is, what can you do with what you know?”

Larmer taught high school English and social studies for a decade before he joined the Buck Institute. When he talks about teaching, he has the intensity of experience. He refers to the pursuit of standardized test scores as “drill and kill,” and describes a less-dynamic teaching approach as “the sage on the stage.”

Yet as a teaching method, there’s a lot of work up front; coming up with a project that is relevant in the real—and future—world and identifying the questions the students are enticed to answer. You want to have tangible expectations and progress markers, Larmer added.

It also means teachers letting go of control, and that’s not easy for everyone. Teaching a project-based curriculum is a method that requires training and practice. Larmer noted the school at large has to be onboard for it to work in the classroom. One of the first asks is for longer class periods so students have time to immerse themselves in projects—time often gained by partnering with another teacher to combine two consecutive classes.

In the end, Larmer has found, it’s worth it.

“We are continually surprised and amazed by what students accomplish,” he said. “They are creative and innovative, they are eager to learn and to communicate what they learn. They become engaged with the process of authentic learning and they learn so much about themselves.”

“Project-based learning promotes critical thinking, it give kids power and voice”

– John Larmer, editor-in-chief for the Buck Institute for Education

Community Learning

Critics of project-based learning are usually concerned about test scores and getting kids into college, Larmer said. In January, the MRDC called the method “promising,” but noted there’s very little research to determine if the method really gets better results.

Yet, anecdotal evidence tells another story. Delgado has been teaching with multidisciplinary projects for more than a decade and he said that it keeps him looking forward to going to work every day. He also noted that projects in the real world have an authenticity to them that challenges the students to engage as well as learn. The kids remember what they did, not what they read.

“We built a community of learning around this work,” Delgado explained. “The kids remain interested and they work as a team while they develop their individual skills.”

Larmer reinforced the method “helps restore the joy of teaching,” as project-based learning honors the students for what they bring to the classroom, and gives them confidence and experience in a wide range of subjects.

This year, Delgado’s 11th grade class didn’t just learn about the Colorado River watershed, they made a documentary about it. The project began with a question: Where does our water come from and where does it go? In much of Southern California, the answer is the Colorado River watershed.

The kids interviewed experts, researched drought and water rights, traced the river, and learned about farming and irrigation. They visited places entirely dependent on the river, including the Imperial Valley, about 90 miles east of the school, where water is used to make farming in the hard-scrabble soil possible. They learned about the strange business of selling water. Some students put together a 30-minute movie about the watershed that premieres at a community theater in San Diego in May.

“I don’t think of myself as a teacher so much as a facilitator of experiences,” Delgado said. “The kids generally go beyond what I expect of them. Their creativity is amazing.”