Project Based Learning and Student Engagement

Boosting Student Engagement Through Project-Based Learning

A rising number of educators, like Taji Allen-Sanchez, who teaches science to sixth and seventh graders at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco, are coming to the conclusion that the traditional methods of teaching are not adequately preparing kids for life after they leave school. Students can be taught material through lectures and direct instruction, but these methods do not help students develop abilities like working together to solve problems or having an inquisitive nature, which are increasingly sought after by companies.

He explains that if teachers only provide pupils with answers, it is unlikely that the students will comprehend the material being taught. “In all seriousness, any child is capable of memorising material; the question is, can they apply it to a specific situation in the real world?”

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Allen-statement Sanchez’s is borne out by the results of a study taken in 2013 by more than 700 executives of different companies: The majority of job candidates, including those who were technically competent, lacked the communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills essential to do the jobs for which they applied, according to the opinions of fifty percent of the respondents. Far too many people who had completed their degrees at the college level may brag about their great grades and test scores, but they lacked essential skills necessary for success in the workforce.


Allen-Sanchez uses a combination of project-based learning (PBL) and performance assessments to encourage his pupils to acquire a more in-depth understanding of scientific concepts. This is done in an effort to nurture the development of those necessary abilities. The curriculum that he utilises is the product of a project that was conducted at Stanford to investigate how problem-based learning (PBL) combined with performance assessments might improve student learning. The findings obtained up to this point have been encouraging: Students who participated in the programme showed considerable improvement in their overall scores on state standardised math and English language arts (ELA) assessments over the course of the project’s duration of three years. It is noteworthy that teachers have reported better levels of participation and engagement from their students.

The program’s emphasis on academic discourse was particularly beneficial for students learning English; as a result, these students did significantly better than their classmates on the state’s evaluation of language ability.

PBL can be an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students because it organises learning around meaningful goals, which research shows can be an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students. Students are motivated to deepen their understanding in order to solve a problem that is meaningful to them. PBL can be an effective way to cultivate a “need to know” attitude in students. When students recognise a need for a concept’s application, they are better able to comprehend that concept. This is because recognising a need for a concept motivates students to apply what they are learning to real-world scenarios, which in turn leads to a deeper level of comprehension.

Students played an active participation in their classrooms at the schools that took part in the study. This included students asking questions, finding solutions to issues, conducting experiments, and participating in group discussions. Students in this class had the impression that the assignments they were given were of a higher quality in terms of being interesting, difficult, meaningful, and pleasurable than students in classrooms that followed a typical science curriculum. The researchers also noted an increase in the proportion of students who stayed on task and paid close attention to both the instructor and their classmates.


Students are able to transition from asking “what?” to also asking “why?” and “how?” when they engage in project-based learning, which can be a catalyst for revolutionising the way science is learned. Students in traditional classrooms frequently concentrate their efforts on memorization of information in order to perform well on exams. PBL is being used to encourage scientific inquiry at Aptos Middle School and other schools across San Francisco. This approach places students in the role of scientists and requires them to apply authentic reasoning practises — such as experimentation and trial and error — while they are learning in the classroom. Students are taught not just the content of the curriculum, but also how to apply that content in the form of open-ended projects that they help develop.

This transition is being driven by the 5E model, which rejects the conventional “scope and sequence” method of teaching, in which pupils advance along a predetermined path of concepts and skills throughout the course of the academic year. Instead, instruction is structured around five stages, which are as follows:

Students’ curiosity might be engaged by presenting them with innovative concepts.
Discover: Actions that require participation increase one’s comprehension.
The students are asked to explain the concepts using their own words.
Explain in detail how the ideas are implemented into a more general setting.
Analyze: The students’ responses paint a detailed picture of their level of comprehension.
According to Allen-Sanchez, who explains the benefits of this model, it “really pushes kids to take an experience, really get immersed in it, learn about it through articles, and conversation, and discussion, and then get into more of it through the Elaborate by pushing what they already know to give more answers.”

In the scientific lectures taught by Allen-Sanchez, the students do more than simply recite the correct answers; rather, they build projects that make use of the 5Es. For instance, students might work together in groups to find solutions to actual engineering problems in the real world, such as collaborating with a restaurant to create a kitchen that uses less energy. These students are taught STEM concepts, such as the effect that windows and doorways have on thermal insulation, and then they apply those concepts in complex situations, such as working with clients, managing projects, and carrying out the design cycle of prototyping, testing, and revising solutions to problems in order to find answers.

According to Jim Ryan, a former STEM executive director for the San Francisco Unified School District, “We knew that we wanted to create a science environment in our classrooms that would disrupt the way that it had become: a course in which facts were learned and memorised.” “We knew that we wanted to create a science environment in our classrooms that would disrupt the way that it had become: a course in which facts were learned and memorised” (SFUSD).


Only 8% of students are capable of meeting the demands of a highly collaborative environment, while the remaining 28% would struggle to do so because they only have basic levels of the relevant skills. This is despite the fact that problem-solving in teams is becoming increasingly important in today’s workplaces. This skills gap is not being addressed in schools to a significant degree, which highlights the need for additional opportunities for students to collaborate with one another to solve complicated problems, which does promote the necessary abilities.

Students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) are reminded by their teachers at the beginning of each academic year that it is imperative for them to collaborate with one another, not only to successfully complete difficult projects, but also to contribute to the shifting of beliefs and stereotypes regarding the identity of scientists.

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“We know that children arrive in the door of this classroom with issues of status behind them, that they recognise themselves as being a scientific person or a non-science person,” said Ryan. “We want to make sure that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed in this class.” “They will start to disprove those assumptions about not only themselves but also about their classmates through student conversation and group work,” and “they will recognise that each of those students is bringing an aspect of smarts into the challenge that they are attempting to solve around science.”

The misconception that scientists perform their job alone is dispelled through the course of the school year through the utilisation of collaborative projects. According to Eric Lewis, who serves as the science content expert for the school district, science “needs a lot of individuals with a lot of different specialisations to work together to communicate an idea and come up with solutions for the enormous challenges that we have today.”


In the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), the philosophy that drives project-based learning is “to increase student learning, start with teachers.” John Hattie revealed in a seminal study that teachers are responsible for thirty percent of the variation in student accomplishment. This puts teachers ahead of other factors such as the quality of the curriculum, the size of the class, and the funding that schools receive. Therefore, after Stanford designed the new science curriculum (which can be downloaded for free), educators from SFUSD worked with the researchers to improve it. They played an important part as co-designers in the process.

“When it came to designing this course of study, it was extremely essential that we worked together as a true collaboration. One, not only between Stanford and San Francisco, but also between instructors, designers, administrators, and so on,” said Nicole Holthuis, a researcher at Stanford and one of the individuals responsible for developing the curriculum. The teachers tried out the new lessons in their own classes and then shared their observations with one another regarding what went well and what could be improved.

According to Lewis, “We’re seeing more students getting their hands wet” because of the 5E model and PBL, therefore it would appear that the relationship is successful. More and more kids are providing us with their thoughts. More students are participating in a wide variety of activities, and this is encouraging.