• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., and Nadiah Al-Gasem, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2016 •

Project-based learning (PBL) engages students! At one particular middle school in an urban city district in San Antonio for example, the results were creative thinking, high student involvement and improvement in 21st-century skills. When teachers authentically engage students in content, attendance increases and behavior improves, as does student confidence and communication.
nilka-and-nadiahPBL creates dynamic classrooms in ways that grow cognitive and non-cognitive skills simultaneously. At this sample school, the projects had real-world impact, tapping students’ empathy through collaboration beyond the walls of the classroom and the school. Students deserve to continue these types of learning experiences.

Research shows that schools benefit from PBL when school and district administrators are committed to the process and facilitate the time for teachers to collaborate, provide professional development and offer other financial resources (Toolin, 2004; Larmer, et al., 2015).

For example, beyond the collaboration, teachers in this middle school were supported by principal Greg Rivers, M.A., in developing hands-on activities requiring authentic problem solving that challenged the students while aligning assignments to the core subjects’ learning goals. Their PBL work immersed the students in creative lessons that fostered inspiration and a thirst for learning and cultivating their knowledge base.

“I love PBL, it was hard when we first started, it didn’t make sense. But now, it’s a great way to really engage my students and boost their thinking skills and creativity,” stated an ESL middle school teacher.

“PBL is perfect for math. It lets students see the numbers in real life,” reported a sixth grade math teacher. This school had the unique opportunity to help students practice critical thinking, collaboration, communication and optimized teamwork in the classroom. Students directly planned and steered their projects, shared their ideas collaboratively, and deepened knowledge and skills as they were empowered to work independently.

“I want to do this again,” said a seventh grader. “It was a lot of work; I had to really think.”

Well-developed PBL lessons provide opportunities for students to use knowledge across content areas authentically. “My students had to apply what they learned, they couldn’t just bubble their way through,” expressed an eighth grade teacher.

Teachers integrated their assessments seamlessly using tools for measuring student understanding from the beginning to the end of a project via rubrics. This experience allowed for a more student-centered environment, where teachers guided students in their learning through inquiry rather than using lectures and traditional techniques that focus on the learner as passive recipient of information. Instead, teachers focused on engaging students with a relevant curriculum while creatively addressing the state standards.

Students explored and presented solutions to authentic, real-world, challenging problems. Teachers collaborated across content areas to design lessons that were truly interdisciplinary.

Celebrating the Outcomes – Spotlighting Energy Conservation

The student projects culminated in an Exposé Fair. Eighth grade students designed a new cell phone device with features to make their product more marketable. They conducted the research, designed, created and presented their invention in the fair to community members who judged their work and findings and gave feedback. Students explained the outcome of their experience and knowledge gained and worked to convince the judges through their persuasive presentation in their selection.

Sixth grade students created a public service announcement (PSA) for energy conservation in the city of San Antonio. These were the students’ first public products, and they were excited to talk to professionals about their PSAs. “When are they coming?” asked a smiling sixth grader, as her two teammates rearranged their posters and iPad five times within two minutes. “They are judging other groups, but they are coming,” was the response. The diminutive sixth grader took a deep breath and moved the posters yet again.

Students were excited and ready to present; they wanted to be heard by adults from outside the school. It was refreshing seeing students take such pride in their work and yearning to share their knowledge with others.

One judge at the Exposé Fair shared her personal experience as students’ presented their findings. She described the process she was going through to have 32 solar panels installed at her home. The students asked many questions, so the judge offered to videotape the process of installation at her house to share with them.

See our infographc with the 8 elements of PBL lessons

Lessons Learned

In these successful PBL units, teachers set clear goals, planned strategically, made students accountable, gave them concrete deadlines, shared rubrics in advance, monitored their progress and reflected on their methodology. Teachers exposed students to a realistic problem or project aligned with students’ skills and interests and required that the learning be clearly defined with the content and skills using protocols, or exemplars from local professionals and input from students.

Teachers also created opportunities for multi-faceted assessments for students to receive feedback and revise their work via collaborative discussions, benchmarks and reflective activities. Students were required to provide presentations that encouraged participation and signaled social value via exhibitions, portfolios, performances and reports. Teachers participated in a professional learning network, collaborating with others and reflecting upon PBL experiences with colleagues.

“I really like presenting to the real people,” stated a sixth grader. “When are we doing this again? It was fun,” was a statement echoed by several students in different grade levels.

Community-Businesses Partner with Schools to Improve Teaching and Learning

This community of learners believed that students and schools can benefit from the support and expertise of local businesses, community organizations and individuals who live in the neighborhood.

One result was a presentation by Mr. Bryan Shellenberger, President & CEO of APEX Home Energy Savings/NetZero, the company that installed the solar panels at the judge’s house. Mr. Shellenberger brought with him a team of professionals: engineers, electricians and air conditioner and energy efficiency technical support staff. They presented on the equipment they use along with a PowerPoint and video on how solar systems operate. They engaged the students in the discussion asking them questions reaffirming the knowledge they have gained through the PBL activities.

The team of professionals also was excited as they were able to increase the students’ knowledge and encouraged them to continue to strive academically in seeking a college education to get ahead in life and give back to their community.

“Of course, when they come and present, we can review the TEKS with the students,” said the sixth grade science teacher when asked if it will be a problem to stop instruction for the presentation. The language arts teacher assigned students to write a reflective piece with editing peer groups to revise each other’s work.

Effective PBL requires a team effort and incorporates educators with community experts to contribute to student learning. It shifts from printed textbooks to authentic real-world situations where students think, analyze, reflect and create. When educators dream big, with students in mind, the PBL projects connect students with real life and joyfully accelerate learning!


Buck Institute for Education. (2016). What is project based learning (PBL)? website (Novato, Calif.: Buck Institute for Education). http://bie.org/about/what_pbl

Kagan, S., & M. Kagan. (1994). Kagan Cooperative Learning (San Clemente, Calif.: Kagan Publishing).

Lamer, J., & J. Mergendoller, S. Boss. (2015). Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction (Alexandria, Va.: ASCD).

Thomas, J.W. (2000). A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning (San Rafael, Calif: The Autodesk Foundation).

Tooling, R. E. (2004). “Striking a Balance Between Innovation and Standards: A Study of Teachers Implementing Project-Based Approaches to Teaching Science,” Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 13 (2), pp. 179-187.

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is and IDRA senior education associate and director of IDRA’s STAARS Leaders project.  Comments and questions can be directed to her via email atnilka.aviles@idra.org. Nadiah Al-Gasem, Ph.D., is a project based learning facilitator at the San Antonio ISD in Texas.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]