Using PBL & STEM to Energize Learners

Earlier today, I had the opportunity to attend the Carnegie STEM Excellence Progressing Workshop at the Heartland Foundation in St. Joseph, Missouri. This was the second workshop in the Northwest Missouri region specifically designed to support strategic planning and implementation of STEM education. This post will recap the workshop and provide links to the resources shared by presenters.

STEM Fundamentals
As the morning’s activities kicked off, the group of over 100 educators reviewed the fundamentals of STEM with Brian Crouse from the Missouri Chamber Foundation. Following a great introductory video, Crouse made the case to the audience that “STEM is best conceptualized as an integrated approach” and that STEM is essential learning for the 21st century, not merely a supplement to the core. It’s not uncommon to experience resistance to the implementation of STEM. It looks and feels different from traditional learning experiences which can be scary for educators and parents. However, if certain conditions are met it can be a powerful learning experience that takes core content knowledge to the realm of real-world application. When planned and delivered effectively, students collaborate around relevant problems. These are the kind of problems that are unpredictable and require learning agility and critical thinking.

Failure is Not an Option
Project-based learning (PBL) was kicked off with perhaps the best real-world unpredictable problem known to man, the successful recovery of the Apollo 13 astronauts. As the group watched a brief clip from the movie we were challenged to identify all the elements of STEM present in the clip: What STEM integration do you see? What content knowledge do you see? What technical skills are evident? How do individuals demonstrate they are STEM capable? The next presenter was Dr. Patricia Lucido, from SummitSTEM. As she began her session on PBL, Dr. Lucido emphasized the integration of English language arts and oral communications in real-world STEM activities. She cited the example of the NASA scientists from the previous video clip, “Did the scientists working on the Apollo 13 mission need to communicate effectively? Writing, speaking and listening were just as crucial to the mathematical calculations and design practices that saved the mission.”

Dr. Lucido reminded us that PBL is not new, not unless somehow we have forgotten John Dewey’s life work. Designing or creating a project is a proven strategy to deepen understanding and acquire new competencies. Progressive education is our history, our implementation of PBL is not new. While fear may be involved because we sense a loss of control or feel as though we are wading into the pedagogical wild, we are not jumping off the deep end into something unknown.

As the graphic above illustrates, the 21st century workforce has changed and requires new skills. Dr. Lucido emphasized the importance of the 4 C’s (creation, collaboration, communication and critical thinking), stating that “everyone needs to be competent in the 4 C’s across all domains. No one works alone any more. There are skills to be a good collaborator.” Later in her session she added that all PBL roles and responsibilities require competency: “Having everyone leaving your room being capable to be the leader, recorder, or communicator is essential.”

Ultimately, PBL is about in-depth inquiry. It’s about imagining solutions to life’s real problems. As part of the inquiry process students will gain a better understanding of claims, evidence and reasoning–something more important than ever for our students. Dr. Lucido related the PBL process to the 5E model in science (Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, Evaluate) and stated that “if I were to add another step to the five E’s it would be to engineer something.”

At the heart of an effective PBL process is significant content. Absent meaningful content this becomes motion without a destination. John Dewey warned us against such things over 100 years ago. Before transitioning to our PBL Hackathon, Dr. Lucido offered a final caution about using PBL, “Don’t sit there and micromanage the rubrics.” Enjoy PBL and remember, learning is supposed to be fun. Are the kids speaking out? Who owns the learning?

PBL Hackathon
Today’s workshop closed with some meaningful application, a PBL hackathon. For this challenge every participant split into five groups: land, humans, space, water, and cities. Each group was split into two teams and tasked with creating a PBL based upon an authentic or real-world challenge or problem within their domain. Each team had to involve at least 3 of the 4 STEM domains and 1 non-STEM domain. Each team had to demonstrate 3 Missouri Learning Standards or Next Generation Science Standards. Teams were required to demonstrate a clear connection and to provide multiple assessment approaches.

Following the development of their PBL each team presented and then voted on which team best met the established criteria. The winning team went on to the large group presentation and pitched their PBL to all participants. I was blown away by the critical thinking and in-depth inquiry that occurred around real-world challenges in such a short period of time. Most important perhaps, the process was enjoyable for participants. We were able to be social and build something together to a precise metric with the understanding that if implemented, our PBL could make a positive difference.

Post-Secondary Readiness
As the workshop drew to a close, Brian Crouse approached the podium to address the crowd one final time. He shared that according to research from the Missouri Chamber, the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the next decade will require some background in STEM. He also shared the perspective from Missouri industries about what they see lacking from job applicants. Crouse mentioned the traits below and suggested that by investing in PBL and STEM we can close the gap between the habits and skills employers desire and what our graduates possess. All in all, this was an amazing day of learning. Many thanks to all the workshop presenters, sponsors and participants for their efforts.


Carnegie Science Center. (2017). Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway. Pittsburgh, PA.

University of Delaware. (2017). PBL Clearinghouse.

World Economic Forum. (2016). The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution. World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.