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March 29, 2021

Project-based learning deepens science knowledge for 3rd graders in Michigan

This article was written in The Conversation by Joseph S. Krajcik, professor of science education at Michigan State University, and Barbara Schneider, professor of education and sociology at Michigan State University.

The big idea

Project-based learning – a teaching approach whereby students explore and solve real-world challenges – can improve third graders’ scientific knowledge as well as their social and emotional skills.

Our study evaluated 2,371 third graders in 46 Michigan schools. Approximately half of the sample received an intervention called Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning. The others received traditional science instruction.

The project-based learning program is a yearlong science intervention that includes materials for curriculum, teacher professional development and student testing. It aims to develop students’ science knowledge to understand their world by drawing on their individual and cultural life experiences. At the same time, it also builds reading and math skills and improves social and emotional learning.

Each unit starts with a driving question such as: “How can we design fun, moving toys that any kid can build?” From there, students ask their own questions and investigate what causes moving objects to start, stop or change directions. They collect and analyze data to use as evidence to support their claims and build models to show their thinking. They go on to design and develop products which they share with their classmates, family and school community. For instance, in the toy unit, third grade students received suggestions from first graders to build a toy car or boat that can move fast, straight and go a long distance.

Students in the project-based intervention scored 8% higher on the Michigan state science test than the group of students who received traditional instruction. They also demonstrated greater social and emotional learning compared with the other group, based on surveys done at the start and end of the school year. The survey measured collaboration, ownership and self-reflection.

Why it matters

K-12 students need to learn scientific ideas – such as balanced and unbalanced forces and adaptation – to understand the world, including the pressing environmental problems they are likely to face as a result of climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlights the importance of evidence in making scientific claims.

Unlike a traditional elementary school science curriculum, which relies on textbooks and covering information, project-based learning students learn how to explain natural events such as why dinosaurs died out, but tiny mammals survived, and why objects start or stop moving or change directions. They design solutions to engineering problems and acquire the intellectual tools to seek out additional knowledge when needed.

The Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning program was designed using principles supported by research and aligning with recommendations from the National Research Council on how to support student learning, such as using engineering practices to help make sense of compelling phenomena.

What still isn’t known

We expect – but do not yet know – that if students continue to experience the project-based curriculum in fourth and fifth grades, their knowledge of science, social and emotional learning and creative problem-solving will continue to grow. We also expect that as teachers gain experience teaching project-based learning, their students’ science knowledge and creative problem-solving will increase even more.

We are also learning ways to better capture and keep children’s attention with challenging real-world problems and compelling phenomena.

What other research is being done

We have conducted a similar project-based intervention in high school chemistry and physics. Our findings show that it increased science achievement and interest in pursuing STEM careers for all students, regardless of ability and backgrounds. We are currently exploring how to make project-based learning usable and lasting in various environments, including virtual, hybrid and face-to-face instruction.

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