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K12 Project Based Learning – Five Best Resources

K12 Project Based Learning – Five Best Resources

Project Based Learning (PBL) provides opportunities for students to collaborate on specific tasks to resolve one or more challenges. The effort is driven by asking questions that feed the investigative processes where students do some level of research to collect data and then draw conclusions by summarizing what they found. There are many levels of PBL – from the simple to the complex. One example of simple PBL is students working in pairs to assemble a venn diagram from prompts assigned by the teacher. An example of more complicated PBL is assigning student groups to view ten stations around the classroom. At each station there are different items. The challenge is to determine the socio-economical forces that drove those products being made. Even still, another more complicated PBL lesson is independent student groups designing a short play based on a novel the class read as an assignment. PBL naturally engages students when appropriate classroom management skills are exercised by the teacher so that students remain focused on the tasks.

Lesson design is the foundation for PBL success. My classroom PBL work was designed using a matrixed lesson strategy. This structure creates opportunities for students to think about how they think (metacognition) and thus improve their thinking skills. After all, memorizing data isn’t going to help solve challenges in situational circumstances, but teaching students how to think on their feet is giving them a tool to use for the rest of their life as a lifelong learner. The matrixed lesson has clear objectives, at least one defined challenge/issue associated with concepts begin studied, and is driven by student participation. The activities students perform in class are based on a rubric that has been distributed and explained. The difficulty level of tasks varies and tasks aren’t designed as a recipe to get the correct answer. The rubric gives students confidence in what to do so they can move forward by exploring data, ideas, and circumstances to resolve the challenge or issues being studied.

Most importantly, my role as a teacher is not the great sage during class, instead I’m a facilitator. I don’t answer all, if any, of the student questions. Instead I respond to their inquires with questions. Why? I want to stir their thinking processes. My experience in teaching has shown me that students have a prevalent attitude of “everything can be solved in 20 minutes or less” which is heavily influenced by television sitcoms and 30 minutes news shows filled with two minute information blurbs. During the course of a PBL session the teacher has various ways to examine student understanding: conversations, observations, “ticket out the door”, bell work, class discussion, or short presentations just to name a few.

PBL is comprehensive learning because it involves academic learning and building social skills. Students are better prepared for life as an adult when they can listen to others, communicate their ideas or questions, and feel comfortable participating in group situations. PBL is a total invitation for students to work on those adult skills. Research I did in my classes told me that students learn a lot from each other; sometimes more than they learn from the teacher or teacher presented material. Students working in groups are discussing, questioning, and completing tasks, which is the fertilizer to grow criticla thinking skills.

PBL can be designed to incorporate online resources or done with no technology. I have done it both ways and found that capturing student attention depends on two things: 1) the relevancy of challenge/issue to student life or life outside of class, and 2) the more clearly students understand the task the more often it gets completed. I like learning and can always use a refresher on what others are doing in PBL and the latest research, which I find at PBL information providers. Here are my favorite providers:

Edutopia A host of research, examples, and videos from experts detailing the benefits of PBL and different approaches. They articulate six core concepts of PBL: integrated studies, project learning, comprehensive assessment, teacher development, technology integration, and social/emotional learning. This site has a lot of the material about the “how to” of learning which I imbibed during my trek to obtain my degree in Education.

Project Based Learning Focused on high school and middle school, this is a complete resource for designing, researching, sharing, or collaborating about PBL.

BIE: Project Based Learning An extensive resource for learning about PBL and they provide a free handbook if you are inclined to favor the printed word.

Five Essential Resources

The five PBL resources I have selected below are all online; some have resources that can be used off-line. I’ve used all these in classes and they work well. I want to emphasize again that, to a large degree, the success of any PBL effort rests solely on the classroom management skills of the teacher. This doesn’t mean you have to be a Master teacher or even have a Master’s degree. It does mean you must be able to sustain an educational dialogue with your students: they listen to you, can follow instructions, and can think without your guidance; that you have taken the time to design a matrixed lesson; and that you have a sincere desire to help them develop lifelong learning skills. PBL will keep students busy learning, even if they have a reputation for being disruptive in other classes; I’ve seen it happen over and over again.


This is a teacher haven for learning comprehension. I have used Merlot to 1) pose challenges that PBL work is based on, 2) assigned it as resource students must consult in the research they complete, and 3) as a model of how to distribute material.

Merlot has sections where you can connect with teachers in any content area, link to businesses for real life examples, and just a ton of well done units covering the entire scope of core concepts in all subject areas. They have active learning communities running the gamut of K12 subject along with the practice of education. You can also share advice and expertise about education with other expert colleagues.

The part I like best in Merlot is the depth of useful, meaningful info, which I use to make my teaching relevant by injecting it into my lessons. When my students hear and see the “how” connecting class to their life they are much more interested in giving me their attention.


Intel is one of my all-time favorites because it provides PBL examples that contain resources for activities. And, it’s giving simple, to the point, information about what drives good education lessons that stimulate critical thinking.

– Designing an Effective Project Intel gives a comprehensive look at what is behind good project design. They discuss critical thinking skills, including different taxonomies and learning styles. It goes into detail about how to provoke metacognition opportunities in the project. Another unique insight they include is looking at the current thinking and emotions of students which will color their work. The material here alos covers how to treat class work and teaching – step by step – so when you do PBL it’s built in a dynamic learning environment using critical thinking.

– Innovative Odyssey PBL hits the pavement here. Browse from over 350 projects used in classrooms around the globe that cover all K12 subject areas. Each one has enough information to grasp the big picture and the technology resources to accomplish it. The good news about Intel material is you won’t find a cookie cutter lesson plan; although there is plenty to get you started; you’ll going to tie it down for your class needs.

– Planning Collaboration This is the education philosophy and research section. For teachers who are not familiar with doing work in groups this section will be immensely helpful. You discover research on how learning takes place, how to schedule the project work, performing assessments, and encouraging student learning with critical thinking. This is the core stuff you digest when you get a degree in Education.

The Intel piece I like the best is the odyssey section since it has so much fantastic, relevant links and resources. I just can’t get enough relevant material to teach my students.

TELS, (the center for Technology Enhanced Learning in Science)

TELS is the best “turn key” resource I ever used for PBL with my classes. It’s pretty much science and math based but a creative teacher has some wonderful cross curriculum opportunities here. The goal is to bring university researchers together with middle school and high school educators to improve instruction in science. The web site to use when accessing TELS lessons is located at WISE – Web based Inquiry Science Environment. Once you create your free teacher account then you can see the listing of TELS projects available and set up student accounts too.

There’s a ton of meaningful lessons and each one includes simulations, present day research, opportunities to collect data, reading and comprehension, interactive graphs and other data displays, along with chatting and other online features. My students told me again and again they liked using TELS projects because they could work at their own pace, the material was interesting, and the material helped them understand what we were studying.

For teachers, TELS is a dream resource. You can monitor student work on line. The answers students provide and their online chats can be seen and graded by you. All the grades can be exported to your computer and uploaded into your grade book. Everything is real time here. I like that feature just because it makes my life easier and gives me more time to monitor student focus.

My favorite lesson here is an ecology unit discussing populations of wolves. It examines a case study about managing the wolves from a farmer’s perspective and the wolves perspective. There are five groups of tasks; one group has students drawing a food web, and another group has them contrasting characteristics of different environments. The summary activity is writing a letter to the Governor explaining your opinion and using project material as your facts. I always had students work in pairs on the computer doing this one which worked well. The teacher section lets you rearrange pairs if students are continuously absent. I made instructions for myself, other teachers, and students to use TELS projects;send me an email if you want a free copy.


This is just so cool and 21st century. Whyville is a virtual world where boys and girls from all over the real world come to chat, play, learn, and have fun together. Each student will design their character (face) and they earn clams by playing games and doing other structured activities. For example, players can start a business or buy a car and give friends a ride and even write for the town newspaper.

There are so many ways this can be used in a class I can’t even write about all of them. The first step here, as in all the resources, is getting into the resource material and then start designing a lesson using specific tasks students need to accomplish. After that, the next step is converting those tasks into a rubric. To put students on the right track at the beginning; make sure the rubric is covered before any work begins.

What I like most about this site is that it’s an opportunity for students “to do” life. Whyville is also another good site that exudes relevancy. This one is a tad harder to set up a lesson around but worth the effort. For me, Whyville beats out Second Life mainly because Whyville is less complicated to set up and get started, plus using it requires less computing power.


Alice is the perfect multi subject learning tool loaded with career skill training opportunities. This amazing learning tool provided by Carnegie Mellon teaches, very simply, objected oriented programming – a language very necessary for job seekers wanting big buck careers. This isn’t rocket science, I know because I was introduced to Alice at a teacher class I participated in one summer. During that class I went on to program a simple robot over a two week period. If I can do Alice successfully than anyone can. All the Alice instructions to get started and “how to” do more complex programs are available, step-by-step, that include a myriad of examples.

I used Alice in an after school club I was co-sponsoring with another teacher. We watched in awe as students easily worked together to master the programming skill, far quicker than either one anticipated they would. Students seemed to be happily mesmerized by what they could do and produce. Alice isn’t about drawing pictures. It has the ability to drive robots, produce the interactive programs you see on web sites, and now it’s being integrated with the Sims software. All this functionality and usability for free on a PC or a MAC.

My favorite part of this resource is that it’s available to teach my classes and me a very basic 21st century skill – computer programming. It’s hard to look around my daily life and see something that didn’t require a computer program to make it. Alice takes the mystery out of simple or comprehensive programming and makes it as easy as saying your ABC’s.

My intention with this article is that teachers have more fun and are better equipped to use PBL in their efforts to produce learning opportunities with classes. In the work environment today collaboration is a required skill. By getting students prepared in middle school and high school with better social skills, we are arming them with the best proficiencies to succeed in their careers and with their families.