assorted vegetablesAs a teacher and a lifelong learner, I have always believed that there is an overarching goal that goes beyond self-purpose. Looking back to my first few years of teaching, I never felt the sense of satisfaction with my delivery of instruction. In my heart, I felt something was missing. I always knew I wanted my students to help make the world a better place. Yes, there are a few days when schools do some sort of community outreach event. But do the kids really understand why we do it? Does it make a long-lasting impact on these kids, the future citizens of the world?

I was given an opportunity to attend PBL World in 2018, after all these years of seeking and longing for a student-centered pedagogy that not only helps students learn concepts and skills but also gives a purpose that extends beyond self. I finally found what I’ve been looking for! Thus, the birth of my first PBL unit. Here’s how it reflects Gold Standard PBL’s 7 Essential Project Design Elements:

Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills

I unpacked my third grade standards and looked at the curriculum and resources I have. The science content of this unit is on forces and simple machines. Students should be able to understand what work is as well as identify the seven traditional simple machines and how they function. For this unit, students were assessed on their content knowledge, collaboration skills, and their presentation skills.

Challenging Problem or Question

To spark students’ curiosity and interest, I kicked off the unit by showing the Caine's Arcade video. It's about a boy who started with his own cardboard arcade place and became a global viral phenomenon, inspiring the world for a global cardboard challenge. After a discussion of how some kids can't afford to buy Xbox or Playstation or even meals, the class came up with an idea of helping other kids. In Anchorage there's an organization called Kid’s Kitchen. They provide meals to kids who don’t have dinner. I called them and asked how third graders can help. They said they need vegetables (broccoli, carrots, and spinach). Hence, our driving question: “How can we, as engineers, create arcade games to help Kids’ Kitchen?”

Sustained Inquiry

We took a class trip to Dave and Buster’s to see real arcade games. We also invited a physicist to class to talk to them about forces and interactions. Students consulted the expert to hear his thoughts and advice on the arcade project they are planning to build.

two young student presenting to a senior aged man


Students used real tools when building their arcade. They used a staple gun, cardboard cutter, hot glue, and other recyclable materials. So in addition to learning about simple machines, students also learned how to use these tools appropriately and responsibly. As engineers, they planned their project by sketching their design. They pitched their project, got feedback, revised their design, and gathered their materials before they actually started building.

Student Voice & Choice

critique note from a student

Students chose the arcade they want to build. They also turned it a request on who they want to partner with. Students were welcomed to ask questions and help each other as they were building their arcade.


Critique and Revision

As students took turns to present their project ideas, the rest of the class listened and gave kind, specific, and helpful feedback. The feedback enabled students to reflect on their project and revise for better ideas.


Students were constantly reflecting throughout the unit. At midpoint, we had a check-in moment when students had to pause and reflect on where they are on the project, what questions they still have, and how they’re going to address challenges they have. The last piece of the unit is to reflect on the whole process and think about the challenges they faced. Every student had a roadblock but because they were all deeply engaged and took ownership of their learning, they were all able to think critically and problem-solve. Here’s a video of my students reflecting.

two girls standing front of their project

Public Product

The third graders advertised Game Day during morning announcements one week in advance. They also went to every class to invite them to play their arcade. The important piece of this is what the school community need to bring in order to play the arcade game. For every bag of vegetables a guest brought, they would get a fun pass.


On Game Day, students presented their arcade game to the rest of the school. There were three important things they had to include: (1) The answer to the driving question: How can we, as engineers, create arcade games to help Kids' Kitchen? (2) Where are the forces on your arcade game or what is the science behind your arcade? (3) How do you play your game?

children with a cart full of produce

Lasting Memories

The vegetables third graders collected in exchange of fun passes were donated to Kids' Kitchen. We brought the vegetables personally, then my students and the kids at Kids’ Kitchen enjoyed a scrumptious meal together. My students met and played with the kids who benefitted from their arcade project. After dinner, kids at Kids' Kitchen had so much fun playing the arcade games. The third graders didn't want to leave. According to what I’ve read from the Buck Institute, there’s one final benefit to having a public product: the proud moment when students present their work to the “real world” is often a memory they will keep for the rest of their lives.

I encourage my fellow teachers to never stop looking beyond the classroom wall. Find a meaningful purpose for your lessons. Besides, aren’t we in this field because we want to make a difference? Well, here’s our chance—the chance to make the world a better place, one PBL unit at a time.

Sheryll Orbase, Teacher / Program Leader Pacific Northern Academy Anchorage, Alaska