This year I have taken on my first big project in a course that has been primarily short (3-4 week) physics based projects. Each of my classes is building a quad copter. Since the opportunity was a pleasant surprise, I was not able to plan out the project as it should be done in a project-based learning (PBL) course. It has tested my flexibility and my creativity as well as my ability to think on my feet. I am a strong proponent for trying new things and being willing to fail and try again. My students are the beneficiaries of some wonderful modeling opportunities this year.
I offer up a list of things I have learned so far in implementing PBL:
Plan, plan more than you think. You will need plan B and probably plan C.
This may seem obvious, but so many things go differently than expected in a big project. There have been variables that I could not have anticipated as well as some I should have known about. (21st century buying on the internet is not compatible with 20th century purchasing procedures.) Students do not always have a good measure of their skills when it comes to real-world experiences. Laws change and so do the limitations of the project when you are pushing limits.
Students need lessons in technology, communication and collaboration.
Even my seniors, yes seniors, need time to learn how to create a good presentation, how to use technology to collaborate and create and even how to work together to achieve a goal.
Students need practice being self-driven.
They have spent so much time in class being told what to do, how to do it and what the answers are that they are baffled when presented with a challenge and the freedom to solve the problem. Patience is needed with this as you want them to learn to love the learning process. This is new for them and they really want you to provide the answers or assign a worksheet that has a start and finish that is well defined.
You, the teacher, will have to step back and let them learn.
Be ready to coach, ask leading questions and help them discover a path. It is often tough, but honesty is good. You do not have to know everything. My students are used to the response “that is a great question, let’s go find the answer”. Coming up with a great question is something students are proud of now.
These would apply to any innovative technique for a student-centered classroom. Most of all, be ready to have some fun. There is something amazing about students who choose to learn and achieve a goal that they have set for themselves.