• by Paula N. Johnson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2021 •

Dr. Paula Johnson photoIt all began with a spark! Metro Nashville Public Schools (PS) in Tennessee is home to over 160 schools and more than 85,000 students. Its mission is to “deliver a great public education to every student, every day.” There is a growing group of elementary teachers moving from a spark to a flame. They are ready to light the way for others.

In November 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the IDRA EAC-South expanded its technical assistance partnership with Metro Nashville PS by launching a book study on project-based learning (PBL) for a small cohort of teachers. This article provides a glimpse into a year-long journey that transformed classrooms and instruction through project-based learning.

The Power of Magnets

Not that kind of magnet. Time for a short history lesson on the role of magnet schools in the U.S. education system. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Department of Education established the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) in the late 1960s as an approach to school desegregation. The program was designed to provide students of color improved educational conditions, quality academic programming and marketable vocational skills.

See how IDRA can work with your campus to design a PBL implementation plan and support it through professional development and coaching.

The Department of Education continues to provide funding through a highly-competitive grant process to public schools that wish to establish magnet programs. The program focuses on designing innovative public school programs that promote diversity and strengthen students’ content knowledge.

Metro Nashville PS was awarded one of these five-year grants in 2017. The funding provided the opportunity to transform five elementary schools into STEAM magnets. Magnet schools offer students increased program choices and strengthened academic achievement. Metro Nashville PS uses STEAM education as a means “to desegregate schools by supporting the elimination, reduction, and prevention of social and academic isolation” of students of color and to “improve academic achievement” (MNPS, 2021).

Program leadership focuses on improving academic achievement for students by providing dynamic and collaborative hands-on learning opportunities through real-world scenarios. The district is building a strong program and hopes to increase the number of white parents choosing magnet schools to bring more diversity.

Project-based learning has been a powerful instructional model for re-engaging students during the pandemic.

The Power of STEAM

Each of the selected magnet schools chose its STEAM focus. Five unique themes emerged, including entrepreneurship, environmental sciences, integrated technology and biological sciences, arts, and environmental engineering. The campuses began using STEAM explorations to build student capacity in the 4 C’s of 21st Century Skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication). Teachers developed innovative lessons with multiple opportunities for students to share ideas, thoughts, questions and solutions.

The Power of Project-based Learning

At the end of three years, however, the magnet school evaluations showed a lack of connection between content and each campus’ chosen theme. As Year 4 planning began, the district’s curriculum lead decided to explore project-based learning and asked IDRA to facilitate a book study on PBL practices, which is one of the strategies IDRA shares in our culturally responsive instruction professional development sessions.  Teachers shift their instructional focus in ways that highly engage students. They move away from printed materials toward “authentic real-world situations where students think, analyze, reflect and create” (Avilés & Al-Gasem, 2016). Also, project-based learning enables students to investigate topics that are meaningful to them.

Infographic: 8 Elements of PBL Lessons

Webinar: First Steps in Project-Based Learning

Webinar, PBL at Home & Across the Curriculum 

Podcast Episode: Taking Project-Based Learning Schoolwide

Lucas Education Research found recently that project-based learning has been a powerful instructional model for re-engaging students during the pandemic. Centering learners’ interests in such projects increases their potential for learning gains across racial and ethnic groups, socio-economic status and reading ability levels compared to peers in traditional classes. (2021)

In asking for the book study, the district team envisioned an in-depth exploration of the PBL process for a small group of teachers over a long period of time. We designed an after-hours professional learning experience that would not interfere with the school day but at the same time would impact instruction.

The IDRA EAC-South designed and facilitated a five-week virtual book study using Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age (Boss, Krauss & Conery, 2018) as the text. The first cohort included 16 teachers, representing each of the five campuses.

As facilitators, IDRA models readiness assessment as part of our instructional delivery process. Similar to how we establish prior knowledge before instruction with student learners, we want to determine how much background information our cohort members had regarding project-based learning. To accomplish this, we began our first meeting with a survey to gauge how familiar our group was with technology, online resources, project-based learning and presentation tools. Most had some idea of what project-based learning is. None felt they were ready to charge ahead without more information.

Weekly sessions included pre-work activities, guided professional development, collaboration, reflection questions and research. For the culminating exercise, each team developed a project-based learning STEAM lesson related to their school’s magnet focus. Teams presented their lessons, shared reflections on the process and identified implications for further implementation.

Kindergarten teacher Mary J. Hollingsworth,  stated: “The work I’ve been doing with IDRA and PBL has helped to enhance my knowledge of creating and implementing PBL successfully. My students love doing projects and expanding their knowledge. It has allowed them to take ownership of their learning. Yes, kindergarteners can take ownership of their learning, and they show great pride in all their work.”

The showcase projects also were shared with all campuses during a winter MSAP Spark conference. Hearing about their peers’ experiences and growth ignited interest among more teachers. The district team organized a second book study that began early 2021 with an additional 19 teachers. By midsemester, we had almost 40 teachers implementing PBL lessons that connected STEAM with their campus theme.

IDRA staff visited the entrepreneur STEAM campus during student showcases. You cannot imagine the delight of witnessing fourth graders presenting a project and marketing their product to classmates. Shark Tank has nothing on these young minds.

Fourth grade teacher Angela Phelps, reflected: “Being part of a professional cohort that supports the implementation of PBL in a STEAM magnet school has helped me generate ideas and check for fidelity in the teaching and learning process, and it inspired me to implement innovative learning experiences for my students that support key concepts and 21st century skills. I am really excited for the students to develop their communication skills and see how math helps us understand the world.”

All of the projects were different. Their creators were excited to share designs, advertising campaigns and profit margins with us. Students were able to articulate how multiple STEAM components contributed to their projects. No worksheet or exam could have accomplished this level of engagement and comprehension.

The Power of Partnerships

Schools everywhere benefit from community support. Parents, volunteers, businesses and organizations can all contribute to the success of their local schools. Whether they give of their time, talents and treasures, schools need support from all around. The Metro Nashville PS magnet schools recruit mentors and guest speakers related to their school’s theme to demonstrate real-world connections for students and initiate dialogue on how the skills the students are developing can be used to make the world a better place. From learning how to grow food in community gardens to developing artistic talents, the schools are providing students with experiences that will stay with them for years to come.

Teneice Renee Kirby (EE Grades K-4) stated: “For me, this journey has opened my eyes to all the connections that are already established within our school or even within our community. My students will learn, understand and execute certain skills that will equal becoming more involved in their larger community. This is an opportunity that they may not have had if this PBL cohort had not been offered.”

The IDRA EAC-South is privileged to work alongside educational partners across our 12-state region to address a broad range of educational concerns. As an equity assistance center, we are charged with providing technical assistance to public schools that address issues of inequity related to race, gender, national origin and religion. All of our efforts support districts in promoting diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environments where students of all ages can thrive and succeed. We hope this project encourages other schools and districts to examine how project-based learning and a focus on STEAM can help uplift teachers’ instructional practice and collaboration. These strategies have immense potential to increase academic engagement and achievement for all learners.


Avilés, N., & Al-Gasem, N. (September 2016). Project Based Learning – Changing Learning Paradigms One Lesson at a Time. IDRA Newsletter.

Barnett, M. (March 2017). Project-Based Learning for Student Success – Teaching Across Content Areas for Diverse Learners. IDRA Newsletter.

Boss, S., Krauss, J., & Conery, L. (2018). Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. International Society for Technology in Education.

Lucas Education Research. (2021). Rigorous Project-Based Learning is a Powerful Lever for Improving Equity. Lucas Education Research.

MNPS. (2021). STEAM Magnet: Purpose, Passion, & Innovation, website. Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Paula N. Johnson, Ph.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2021 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.]