by Mark Barnett  • IDRA Newsletter • March 2017 •

Adopting project based learning was a primary goal of Principal Dawn Worley at the newly formed the JSTEM Academy, a middle school in Converse, Texas, two years ago. Mrs. Worley started with the expectation that all of her staff would be teaching through project based learning, not just those who are teaching STEM courses at her STEM-focused middle school. She knew that her staff needed training, expertise and coaching to get the ball rolling.

IDRA worked with Mrs. Worley and her staff to create a three-year plan for project based learning (PBL) implementation where Year 1 was exploratory, Year 2 focused on growth and Year 3 will have all teachers teaching through project based learning at least 80 percent of the school year.

Project Based Learning Culture Starts with a Bold Vision from Leadership

In order to facilitate the challenges of project based learning, a strong commitment from school leadership is needed to sustain long-term success. Adopting project based learning will lead to some challenges, like moving a scope and sequence around to fit a particular project or changing the entire school schedule for a week for student presentations.

Mrs. Worley at the JSTEM Academy is an example of a dedicated principal willing to take risks and clear obstructions so that project based learning can remain the primary goal for instruction. Adoption requires commitment and cooperation from the entire staff, but the campus leader should have a vision for how it will be implemented with success.

Cross Curricular Project Based Learning

Some of the strongest PBL units at the JSTEM Academy come from the social studies and English language arts teachers who work closely with math, science and other teachers to facilitate projects that not only connect to state standards but also enhance them through making cross-curricular connections. Project based learning is meant to emulate how professionals might work in project based settings, so it is only natural that PBL units connect to multiple studies as well.

While the JSTEM Academy is focused on increasing STEM-related skills for students, every PBL unit is tied to at least two content areas. JSTEM Academy teachers also have access to three makerspace learning labs where students can use state-of-the-art equipment like hand tools, 3D printers and sewing machines to create project deliverables.

Cross-curricular connections become evident when watching students work in the makerspace learning labs. For example, one seventh grade project required students to cut out stencils to make political posters that combined social studies content and math content. Students used scroll saws and cardboard to make the stencils that were mathematically proportional to their blueprint drawings.

Project Based Learning with Diverse Learners

In Judson ISD, 55 percent of the students are Hispanic and 22.2 percent are African American; 70 percent are economically disadvantaged and 18 percent are English learners. This makes for a fairly diverse group of students. The JSTEM Academy student body reflects proportionally to the school district. It also accepts students from across the whole district.

To tackle the needs of diverse learners, the JSTEM Academy has incorporated elements of culturally responsive pedagogy where teachers encourage students to let their own unique cultures shine through various projects. Civic engagement, service learning and teaching empathy are other core areas of concern that are built in by design when teachers are planning PBL units.

One way to increase opportunities for diverse learners is through providing project options where teachers give students several choices for project presentations. Students can select the medium for their project deliverables and presentations that match their unique strengths and styles.

Teacher Professional Learning Community

Creating cross curricular PBL units can only be successful when teachers work together and are given specific time to do so. At the JSTEM Academy, teachers are given time to regularly plan with other teachers to design PBL units that stretch across content areas. During this time, teachers use a reflective practice called critical friends protocol to give each other constrictive criticism for tweaking and modifying PBL units.

The staff work together collegially under the leadership of the principal who expects teachers to model successful team work. The teachers have created a professional learning community where they help each other with designing PBL units, hone their skills and seek to grow professionally. This professional learning community has been instrumental in the JSTEM Academy’s success as they have grown over the past two years.


From the very first “Project Based Learning 101” professional development to the monthly coaching sessions, the JSTEM Academy has acknowledged the need for high quality professional development and coaching to guide educators through the process of adopting project based learning as the main instructional strategy. Taking the plunge into project based learning shouldn’t be done alone or without expertise. IDRA has been working with JSTEM Academy staff and leadership on every level of detail of PBL implementation and intends that the JSTEM Academy will become a model of success for other districts.

Results of Project Based Learning

In 2016, JSTEM Academy students performed higher on state assessments than other students in the district and will have the option to continue to high school with a STEM endorsement. Parents of students at the JSTEM Academy have been pleased with how their students are responding to project based learning, and teacher turn-over has been almost zero. IDRA will conduct an in-depth evaluation of the effects of project based learning for the 2017-18 school year.

Starting or Upgrading Project Based Learning at Your School

If you have been hearing about how project based learning can change the culture of instruction, increase test scores and increase student engagement, then let IDRA help you plan for implementation. To replicate the results that we have seen at the JSTEM Academy, we recommend a campus-wide three-year plan, commitment from a dedicated school leader, and a professional development and coaching schedule to ensure fidelity of implementation. Contact us if you are interested or want to learn more.

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Mark Barnett is IDRA’s Chief IT Strategist. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please email 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.]