Sixth-grade students at Curtner Elementary School in Milpitas, CA have been hard at work researching the question, “How can we make a positive impact on climate change?” 

icons of Google apps that can be used for PBL

Every Monday morning, all three sixth grade classes make their way to the Curtner Learning Lab, a recent renovation that included knocking walls down to combine the library and two classrooms into a 21st century learning center, with ample space, flexible rolling furniture, and Chromebooks for student use. Working in teams of three, the students log on to the Chromebooks with their Google accounts, open a team Google Doc used for collaboration, and get right to work on the PBL unit on climate change. 

K-12 students and teachers at school sites throughout the Milpitas Unified School District are taking advantage of the district’s cutting-edge technology infrastructure. It has Google Apps for Education accounts for all students and teachers, close to 7000 Chromebooks (for 10,000 students), and 21st century learning centers at every site. Here are some of the reasons that teachers and students are benefitting from using Google’s tools during PBL.


Student teams shared one Google Doc, copied from a template created by the teacher to guide their research process. Because each student could edit the document, all three students could collaborate together in real time. Student teams researched three “need to know questions” generated by the class in response to the driving question. The students researched each question together, but they searched different websites, and collaboratively added facts, data, and conclusions from different sources, meeting a key Common Core writing standard. The cumulative work was much more in-depth than if the students had worked by themselves only.

As students conducted research, they also recorded additional questions or “wonderings” that would further their inquiry process. Online research was conducted from within the Google Doc, using the “research” tool, which allows students to search the Web, insert links, and cite sources. In addition to using Google Docs for sustained inquiry during a project, students can use Google Docs and Slides to support the other Gold Standard PBL Essential Project Design Elements

  • Reflection. Docs can be used by students for reflection on learning throughout the project. 
  • Critique and Revision. Students and teachers can engage in an ongoing, iterative process of critique and revision to help create high-quality products. 
  • Public Product. Google Docs and Slides can be published on the Web, allowing student products to be showcased to a public audience.

Project Management

Teachers at Curtner and other school sites throughout the district are using Google Sites, another app in the Google Apps for Education suite, to quickly and easily create project websites to support the management of PBL. Teachers at Curtner keep all student Google Docs in a Google Drive folder that is then embedded in the Google Site. This drive folder is easily accessible to all students and teachers involved in the project. Google sites are being used in many aspects of project management:

  • They serve as virtual “project walls” - a place where teachers can collect all information related to the project in one website. 
  • Project requirements and resources can be embedded, attached, or linked, for students to easily access, such as the driving question, lists of student-generated questions for inquiry, and more. 
  • Teachers, especially of younger primary students, can create a page on the Google Site with links to the websites that students will use for research. 
  • Google Sites serve as a hub for managing resources, links, and information needed by teachers and students throughout all phases of a project.

Alternatively, or in addition to using Google Sites, some teachers are delving into the use of Google Classroom, Google’s online platform that allows teachers to post announcements and assignments, use it for collaboration and discussion, and provide a seamless integration with Google’s other apps. Google classroom takes PBL into the Cloud.

For Curtner students, as well as other students and teachers in Milpitas Unified, using Google Docs to work collaboratively has become part of the district’s culture. Now teachers are pairing these tools with PBL, and are getting powerful results. To get started using Google Apps, school districts can sign up for Google Apps for Education, which provides them with the same suite of tools.

For further reading:

Google Docs & Project Based Learning
Using Technology to Help Manage a Project
Collaborative Digital Presentation Enrich Projects
Enhancing Project Based Learning with Google Apps
How to Use Google Tools in Project Based Learning
PBL Pilot:  Apps, Tips, and Tricks
The High Hopes Project:  A Model for Global STEM learning
Launch a Business Venture with Your Students


Do you have questions, comments, or tips how to use Google Apps in a PBL classroom? Please enter them below.

Steven Caringella was a member of the National Faculty from 2014 to 2020.