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Moving toward project based learning part 3: going all the way

July 8, 2012

In part one of this series on project based learning, I wrote about my frustrations with students seeing physics as an extended exercise in problem solving. In part two, I wrote about the end goal I have for my students, helping them to be like Rhett Allain. This post will discuss my first foray into project based learning, capstones.

Undoubtedly, one of the most promising parts of my physics class this year was the introductions of capstones. Capstones were small student-initiated projects that students, designed to show synthesis, that completed in multiple revisions to earn grades above 90. In the very best cases, these projects were outstanding. Students came to me with questions I had never thought of—like trying to figure out the spring constant of a backyard trampoline, determining whether or not it’s possible to stop a charging lion with a gunshot, or trying to test the idea than you can reduce the reading on the scale if you stand on your head for a few minutes beforehand. These projects forced students to conduct all sorts of interesting experiments—the stand on your head student build a model of a person that put a funnel inside a beaker on a scale, and then allowed various liquids (honey, ketchup, etc) to flow through the funnel to see if the mass reading changed while the liquids were in the air.

Many of my most exciting conversations with my students were with students around their capstones. They would come to me with real problems—things I wouldn’t instantly know the answer to, and we would work together to figure out the solution. At times, it felt like I was the leader of a fairly large research group always surprising me with new discoveries and questions. For students who fully engaged the capstone process, I think the results were even greater. As just one example, see how a 9th grade student of mine managed to write a VPython program to solve a 2nd order nonlinear differential equation and presented his work virtually to a roomful of physics teachers and professors—these are the learning moments I want to create for all my students.

But capstones also had their share of flaws. Some students saw them as extra hoops they had to jump through in order to get the grade they wanted. This led them to select projects mostly from the ideas I provided, and they were generally less invested in the project and often wondering if they’d done enough to get credit from me rather than trying to push their understanding or answer some question burning inside them. Also, capstones were done almost entirely outside of class, so it was easy for students to leave them until the last minute, and that created a mad scramble to thrown something together, get feedback from me and be done. In addition, midway through the year, a new social media policy from the school put a crimp in my plan to get feedback from outsiders, which I think significantly impacted the authenticity of these tasks. The students who did get feedback from others were often blown away that another teacher, professor or family member hundreds or thousands of miles away had taken the time to read their posts and comment.

Why not go all the way?

Throughout this past year, I’ve read blog posts from lots of amazing colleagues that talk about the power of fully embracing project based learning and putting the direction of learning in the course fully in the hands of students. Here just a few people who have shaped my thinking.

  • Chris Ludwig taught a 2nd year student-designed physics phunsics class where students build a gigantic trebuchet, hovercrafts, a and a Physics Day filled with physics activities for the entire town. The most amazing thing is that all of these projects and topics of study were decided collectively by the class.
  • Sean Cornally continually inspires me with the crazy awesome stuff he’s able to do with students—this year, he’s teaching biology, and his students are doing it in a completely project based way—giving students a list of objectives and letting them design projects to show mastery.
  • Bo Adams writes passionately about having students invest their energies in taking on real-world problems like childhood obesity, and climate change. Bo along with Jill Gough has put this talk into action by developing the Synergy course for 8th grade students—a trans-disciplinary course that students co-create with Bo and Jill to explore and solve problems in their community and beyond. One post that has me thinking the most is Contemplating pbl vs PBL, which explores the spectrum of project based learning and delineates a difference between small scale project based learning, like making a poster about a famous mathematician, and project based learning that asks students to take on significant issues for an authentic audience—like having students work to develop a campaign to combat childhood obesity for the Department of Public Health for a local county.
  • Bob Rhyske, a friend and former colleague wrote a wonderful post about the big problems we face, like the energy crisis, are going to require innovate thinkers who are capable of taking risks, making connections across disciplines, have a love for experimentation and design, and persistent.
  • Just today, Dan Goldener shared a beautiful description of a course taught by Harold Fawcett in 1938, called the Nature of Proof, which was ostensibly a geometry course, but began with the teacher denouncing geometry as no longer necessary for students to learn and instead had the students debate about whether or not the school should give awards for outstanding achievement. Of course, this lead to great debate among the students,and eventually, the students saw the need to better define their terms, and work to see how their conclusions were often the results of unstated assumptions, and of course, all of this led back to students wanting to move to a less controversial topic, and so they began to study how we describe space, aka geometry, but never letting go of questions of proof beyond geometry, and so the class continues to analyze things like political speeches and supreme court decisions.

Reading all these and reflecting on all these ideas makes me feel like I’m playing in the kiddie pool by asking students to complete small capstone projects on their own while we spend the bulk of our time doing activities, labs and problems I’ve chosen.

Begin completely fanciful, impractical, not-well-thought-out musings:

So why not just dive right in? What about creating a course alongside students—similar to Chris, we start with the question of what is physics? What problems can it help us to solve, and by problems I mean real-problems, like why can’t produce electric cars that are competitive with gasoline powered cars on price and range? From there, we’d identify the things we’d need to understand to answer these questions, many of which I’m sure would tie back to basic physics concepts. From there, we’d begin research, reading texts and articles, doing experiments, and talking to experts. We’d also have devise ways of testing our understanding, and some final artificat (maybe a class built electric car) to close out our investigation.

Of course there are lots of schools where students have built electric cars or pulled off other similarly awesome projects and I’m sure that students who worked on these projects will have learned many lessons that will last them a lifetime. But the 13-year physics teacher wonders how this translates into understanding of the physics content and problem solving that I’ve relied on for so long. This is something I’ll try to explore in the next post in this series.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 1:20 am

    One problem with mega-projects is that the completion of the project usually requires specialization by the participants, which results in each learning a narrow part of the subject deeply. High school physics classes are intended to be broad, which is not really compatible with a large group project. Your capstone projects are probably about as far into project-based learning as you can go and still have all the students learning most of the physics that they are supposed to learn.

    It is certainly possible to have project-based labs, but choosing the projects to make sure that all the physics they are supposed to learn is covered is not a trivial task. Adding one or two good project labs a year is probably a feasible goal, though.

  2. Becca permalink
    July 9, 2012 2:58 am

    Looking at this post and a lot of the comments on “Part 2” I’m sort of seeing two separate ideas that I want to respond to, but they’re also kind of all mushed up together, so forgive me if this is a little all over the place.

    The first thread I’m seeing here is the idea of self-directed learning (SDL) and intrinsic motivation. It’s the thought that you want your students to be genuinely interested in the work they’re doing, and that if you give them the freedom to choose what they do, then they will develop that interest. This is something I’ve been really interested in lately – I’ll come back to it at the end of this comment.

    The second thread of ideas is about project-based learning. One way to motivate PBL is using the above ideas, because PBL is one method of helping students become self-directed learners. A different way to motivate PBL is to say that you want students to learn to tackle real-world problems and to be able to apply what they know to different situations – the kind of thing you’re talking about with your examples from Bob Rhyske and Dan Goldner. Both of these justifications for PBL are good ones, but I think it’s worth distinguishing between them because depending on which is more important to you, there might be different solutions that are better than others. PBL can take many different forms – how you choose to implement it should depend on what you want to get out of it. For example, if you think that the most important thing is for students to tackle real-world interdisciplinary problems, then you might do something like what you describe in your “fanciful, impractical musings.” A lot of the traditional intro physics topics probably would be lost, and you would have to be okay with that being a lower priority than the ability to tackle real problems. On the other hand, if your real goal is for students to be intrinsically motivated, then you can probably stick closer to traditional content while still finding ways to give students the freedom they need to develop that motivation. For example, you could do a series of projects, each of which has a general theme that ensures certain big ideas are hit, but let the students choose what they’re interested in within that space.

    Coming back to the idea of SDL: if you’re interested in ways of giving students freedom without necessarily giving up the physics content you want them to learn, or really just if you’re interested in learning more about SDL at all, I would suggest reading “Freedom to Learn” by Carl Rogers. I’m in the middle of reading it right now and I’m really enjoying it. It starts right from the beginning with three very different examples of teachers creating student-directed classes: it’ll give you a lot to think about. (Also, when it was recommended to me I was told to get the 1st or 2nd edition, not the 3rd. I’m told the earlier ones are better, and also far cheaper if you go on Amazon or something.)

    Also, as you can probably tell by the length of this comment, I’m really interested in PBL and SDL. I have a lot of experiences with PBL as a student, which means I also have a lot of ideas about various ways it can be done, some of which are probably far less useful to your situation than others. I’d be happy to share more thoughts: feel free to continue the conversation in the comments, or e-mail me if you’d prefer that (can you see the email address that I give wordpress when I submit this?).

    • July 9, 2012 11:45 am

      Thanks for the awesome comment. After a bit of google stalking, it seems like you’re a student at Olin. Is this correct? I’d love to know more about your experiences there. I’ve loved everything I’ve heard about it since it began, and found the descriptions in Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators very fascinating. I’m curious how Olin handles PBL in its foundational courses like calculus and physics.

    • Becca permalink
      July 10, 2012 2:02 am

      Hi John,
      I am a student at Olin 🙂 (Google never fails. Also, just to connect the dots for you, I told you this last summer)

      As for PBL in foundational courses: the first-year curriculum is probably the most constantly changing part of Olin, so this is going to be a long answer. The short version is that in the first semester there are two project-based classes and one lab-based class with a project at the end, and none of those three classes map nicely onto the traditional intro college classes. (The forth class students take is a humanities foundation). In the spring, there are more traditional math and physics classes and the level of PBL in them varies depending on which you pick (and which year you were in).

      Let’s start with physics. I never took intro mechanics because I had AP Physics C in high school and didn’t think I needed it. I TA’d the class this past spring and it was not project-based but it did involve a lot of self-directed learning. My understanding is that in the past it’s been more traditional (well, at least for the three years proceeding this one – before that things were way different). I did take intro E&M, which relied on vector calculus as a co-requisite and was project based, where the projects involved modeling and simulation of various E&M systems. Class time was a sort of hybrid lecture/structured problem solving where there would be a short bit of lecture followed by us working on problems in groups (sometimes on the blackboards, sometimes not), then class discussion of the problem, followed by a little more lecture, then repeat the pattern for the 110 minutes of class. Out of class time was split between work on projects and work on homework assignments designed to teach us the tools (MATLAB skills) we would need for the projects. With each project, we were given a general theme and a few suggestions for good possible topics, but also allowed to choose a different topic if we wanted to and it fit the theme. The first project was about anything essentially static: for example, I modeled a magnetic lens in an electron microscope. Penning ion traps were another common topic that I remember. As an example of what wouldn’t fit into that category, one group tried to suggest rail guns but wasn’t allowed to do it. The second project was about waves – obviously that could mean electromagnetic waves, but people also did things about waves on drums or guitar strings, etc.

      Other physics classes: in the past, there has also been a more theoretical version of intro E&M. At least in the one semester that I heard the most about it from friends, that class involved more lecture-type learning for the majority of the semester, then had a final project for the last month or so. The structure of the project was basically “do anything you want related to E&M. But you have to write a really good, detailed project proposal so I know you have a plan.” Next semester there is going to be a project-based E&M class where the projects are more experimentally focused. I honestly have no idea what’s that’s going to be like because I don’t think anything similar has been offered since I’ve been here.

      As for math classes: we don’t have a calculus class at all. Before I arrived, freshmen used to take two semesters of what was called an “integrated course block” – math and physics combined. I think that the first semester of that involved teaching of calculus, at least for some people, but I’m unsure of that. My year, there was no formal, isolated math in the first semester, and then everyone who didn’t already know it took vector calculus (I think that’s calc 3 at most schools) second semester. Vector calc for us was not project based. Class time was split between about an hour of lecture and then an hour of open problem solving time with the teachers and TAs available for help. The following year, they tried having an optional “calculus review” type class in the fall for people who felt they needed the refresher, but it didn’t go well and nothing similar showed up again. For the class that entered in 2011, all the required math courses are being completely redone. As with my year, they had no isolated math instruction in the fall. In the spring, they took a class called “Linearity” which was Linear Algebra and Differential Equations combined, though they spent significantly more time on the former than the later. This coming fall they’ll take Linearity 2 which will cover Vector Calculus and do some more Differential Equations, with also a little introduction to Partial Differential Equations. The structure of Linearity 1 was that they had lectures once a week (all together), and were in studio twice a week. Studio means that they are in classrooms with about 22 students and they would alternate between just working on problems in groups and presenting those problems to the class.

      This is really long already, so I’m going to end it here, but if you want to know more about the project-based first semester classes, let me know and I can give you an overview of those too. Also, feel free to ask me any other questions you have about Olin – I’m happy to talk about it any time 🙂

  3. July 9, 2012 5:11 am

    I don’t think you’re talking about a first year physics class, here. At least, not a very good one. Students aren’t experts in how to learn physics well. A class designed based on education research seems like a much better idea than one designed by people who have no idea how to learn physics.

  4. July 10, 2012 10:12 am

    Great post, John. And I so appreciate the comments, especially Becca’s.

    Of course, as you might imagine, I love your musings. I don’t think they are necessarily impractical either. I am NOT arguing with the commenters here, but I am approaching this as a researcher and scientist of PBL. I wonder about the claim that your musings are not for a first-year physics course. I am no expert in what must be covered in such a course, and your PLN in this regard is extraordinarily rich and wise. So I offer the following as a curious researcher only…

    What if we assume that a normal, typical physics course (HS) covers a content that we will index with the number 100. 100 is the index of content delivered. In 5 years, what of that index does a typical HS student remember? 30…40…70…90 as a comparison of internalized understanding relative to the index. I would estimate 40-50. Wish there were science on this!

    But what if you taught the physics class as your musing suggests? Perhaps you would only cover 50 units of the indexed 100. But would students internalize and sustain more of the understanding due to approach, engagement, and participatory curiosity? If they did, perhaps you would lose no real ground on the take-away index. But would you turn on more kids to being scientists and doing science? I hypothesize YES!

    Would LOVE to do the actual and real scientific research of what I am proposing. Some of my hypotheses are based on what I hear alums recount that they remember from school. They remember the projects, experiences, field trips, etc. They don’t seem to recount the coverage of topics from the syllabus as excitedly!

    • July 10, 2012 10:30 am

      Actually, what I hear from students is how much more of physics (taught with Modeling Instruction) they feel they really learned and remembered a year or more after taking the class compared to their other classes. More students are signing up to take the second year physics class than the second year biology and chemistry classes combined.

    • July 10, 2012 10:35 am

      Also, we aren’t talking about changing something that I’d call a “normal, typical” physics class, anyway. And I don’t think there are just two options here: lecture traditionally from a book (far from what is currently happening in the class being discussed) or have students read articles and texts on their own driven by questions that are more real-world based. Those two options look nearly identical to me, in terms of the understanding of physics they would build. They might vary along an axis of student interest and commitment, but since they are both based on learning through reading about physics, I would expect them to have similar results when it came to changing student understanding of the world. There are other options that are significantly different from learning by reading textbooks or articles.

  5. July 10, 2012 2:03 pm

    I agree that “doing” beats “listening” or “reading” as a way to produce long-term memories (though I don’t have any citations to experimental validation of that belief). I also think that project-based learning is essential for training engineers (I have 3 high school students in my living room right now, designing and building a computer-controlled NERF gun). You have to be careful in designing projects, though, to make sure that students get a broad range of skills. It is very easy for groups to get caught up in making the project work, with resulting hyperspecialization. (Only one of the three students is currently comfortable with programming the Arduino, for example.)

    Because the nerf gun is purely for fun during the summer, I’m not too worried about exactly what the students are learning, but I am trying to make sure that they all work on all parts of the design, and I’ve been introducing them to the idea of rapid prototyping. (They got a functional prototype of the basic device done on the first day: )

    Incidentally, each of the students has at least one parent who is an engineer, and the parents are very supportive of the kids learning engineering skills.

    • July 10, 2012 11:36 pm

      Interesting. I must say that some of my musings about project based learning has been trying to think about how to scale the work you are able to do with your two exceptional home schooled students to a slightly larger and less exceptional group of 10-12 students.

  6. July 17, 2012 9:23 pm

    Hey John-

    I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who uses all-PBL (in my own definition, which I’m sure varies from other people’s rather significantly in some cases) for an introductory, mandatory physics course for all juniors at a public high school, which I’m sure frames my perspective somewhat. I am not under as much pressure as a lot of public school teachers on the “coverage” issue.

    Like you, one of the things I often (like every day) ask myself is, “Why are my students going to care?” As someone who deeply adores the beauty of physics, it is hard to come to grips with the fact that not everyone does. I think the real power of PBL comes in response to your comment in your first post that “What they never did was really interrogate their answers or the reason for doing the work.” What if, instead of presenting physics as the list of topics to learn, we presented physics as some real-world problems they were facing (and not “real world” like some of the ones we find in the textbook)? An opportunity to ask questions about something they experienced in their drive home yesterday? An opportunity to challenge the status quo about driving regulations for teenagers? (What teenager doesn’t want the opportunity to challenge their parent to a debate about what the rules for safe driving should be? I certainly did that after taking physics in high school, and I won most of the arguments. . . How empowering could that be for students?)

    In reading your question from the last post, “How do I teach my students to be more like Rhett?” I think there need to be opportunities for students to be like Rhett. I think your first characteristic of Rhett is one of the most difficult: students are rarely asked to “find” problems, usually just to solve them. I would consider a lot of what I do with PBL to be modeling problem-finding, in the hopes that as students get practiced with it, they will start to do it themselves. Start them out with, “What happens when your bus stops?” and perhaps they move on to “Holy cow when I was on the bus and it was raining, when the bus turned suddenly I was under the drip from the corner where I hadn’t been before” which was a stunning student observation I couldn’t have rigged if I’d wanted to. What I don’t do is just throw them under the bus and say, “go learn stuff”. I start out by genuinely looking for real experiences they have/are going to have, and outline a challenge/task. As a group, we start thinking about the questions we have, what we might need to learn about, what processes me might use. This process is pretty intensely guided, especially at the beginning, and I always have an agenda about what the underlying principals are that I want students to learn, but students also seem more willing to buy into learning about Newton’s laws when they came up with the questions that

    I agree with the comment above that part of it comes down to your level of comfort with “coverage”. Frequently, I ask myself, “What is my measurement of success?” And as hard as this is to measure (I can almost hear the designers of state standardized tests screaming in pain), my measurement of success is whether or not students come to me, unprompted, to declare that they saw X, Y, and Z and thought about how to analyze it using what they’d done in my class. I don’t measure my success based on whether I cover every one of the modeling units, hit all the chapters in the textbook, or whatever. Within PBL, there is more time for seeing physics as a less isolated discipline, and correspondingly less time to examine every aspect of the discipline.

    Sorry about the length!

    • July 17, 2012 10:35 pm

      Thanks for the awesome comment, and please don’t apologize for the length. I totally agree about the need to teach students to be problem finders, and my work with capstones this year has really gotten me to think about how to be more systematic in encouraging students to follow up on those cool “Hey Mr. Burk I was thinking about physics yesterday afternoon” moments.

      I’m so glad to be moving to where I’ll only be an hour away from your school. I’ll have to find a way to visit more often.

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