(With contributions from Buck Institute National Faculty members Ted Malefyt and Aaron Brengard)

In our PBL 101 workshops, we sometimes notice teachers want to design a “classic” idea for a project that comes to mind easily or is found quickly online, which is a good start but it doesn’t fully meet the criteria for high-quality PBL. What’s most commonly lacking, in terms of our model for Gold Standard PBL, is sustained in-depth inquiry, and authenticity.

We also notice that some teachers become wedded to their initial idea for such a project, and don’t want to change it much from day one to day three of the workshop. This can happen despite feedback from peers and the facilitator. It’s understandable human nature to not give up on something you've thought of—and it takes more work. However, your students might not get the promised bang for the PBL buck if you don’t go back to the drawing board. Design can be hard (so please forgive the critique below), but if you develop a sense of ownership for your work and use a process (like this one or this one) to evolve your ideas, in collaboration with colleagues, the effort will pay off for you and your students.

Our workshop is typically followed up by online feedback or coaching visits to school sites from our National Faculty facilitators, where more fine-tuning can take place, so it’s not the end of the world, but before you get too far down the road…

Here are five of those classic project ideas, with tips for improving them right from the start—or rethinking them entirely.

1. Planting a Garden

This is a common elementary school project idea for teaching some science content, in which students plant vegetables and/or flowers in a campus garden. It can be more like an activity than a PBL unit when it doesn’t include sustained inquiry, or a connection to authentic issues. Or the garden might be something students think about now and then over the course of the school year, rather than it being the focus of a unit of instruction.

How to improve it:

  • Have students conduct inquiry into what conditions are necessary for various plants (soil, water, light, etc.) and determine what will grow best given the climate, sunlight, resource constraints, etc.
  • Have students actually design and build raised beds and irrigation systems, with support by experts from a local organization/business that services gardeners or farmers.
  • Link it to issues around food production, such as organic vs. non-organic farming, water supply/drought, or food distribution/nutrition/hunger in the local community.
  • Grow plants for an authentic purpose, such as to feed people or raise money for a cause/organization which students have researched and agreed upon.
  • Provide a habitat for insects such as bees and butterflies, linking the project to the issue of declining insect populations, and have students make observations and collect data.

2. Science Demonstration

These "projects" can also be more like an activity than a PBL unit--such as building a model volcano with vinegar and baking soda to demonstrate something about earth science, or adding baking soda to grape juice (made from the frozen form) to make it bubbly, to demonstrate the three states of matter. The demonstrations are done for other students, or maybe parents, or recorded on video for the class blog or school website. While better than a stack of worksheets, this project idea usually does not include much inquiry, and is not authentic.

How to improve it:

  • Find an authentic reason for students to learn and apply the content knowledge; where is it used in the world outside of school?
  • Since many experiments and demonstrations found online are meant to focus on only one content standard, bring in more standards into a larger, more in-depth unit.
  • If your project does involve demonstrations, makes sure it’s for an authentic purpose, not just for show—and have students think of their own, different demonstrations, not do the same one from a recipe.
  • Base the project on the NGSS standards for science modeling and other science and engineering practices.

3. Museum Exhibit

This project idea usually crops up in history/social studies, and sometimes in science. Students research a topic and create a trifold display, or maybe a digital exhibit, with docents/presenters and perhaps an interactive component. It pretty much meets the criteria for a good project—as long as it includes sustained inquiry and it's the main course of a unit, not the dessert—but if the point is simply to communicate information, consider beefing it up.

How to improve it:

  • Add a critical thinking component to the driving question. Instead of, “How can we showcase the main events of World War II?” make it, “Why did the Allies win World War II?”. Or instead of, “What were the major features of ancient civilizations?” make it, “Why did ancient civilizations rise and fall, and what can we learn from what happened?”
  • Find a public audience beyond the school and parents, such as the local community, an organization connected to the topic, or students in another (perhaps even distant) school if the exhibits can be shared digitally.

4. Teaching Other Students

In these projects, students convey information to fellow students in the class. For example, each team picks a country in South America, researches its key features, and makes a presentation; or makes a poster to explain a concept or procedure in math; or creates a study guide or presentation about a piece of science content. The project is basically the teacher’s agenda, with little student voice and choice; it’s not authentic and the audience is not public.

How to improve it:

  • As in the museum project above, make the point of the project be more than simply transferring information, by crafting a driving question with a critical thinking component.
  • Make the project be about teaching someone beyond the classroom—for an authentic purpose. For example, students can teach younger children about germs and how to stop the spread of the flu, or teach their community about its history to generate pride and a sense of citizenship.

5. Classroom or School Rules

This project idea comes up naturally in a summer workshop as teachers think about starting the school year, which typically means going over the rules for the classroom or school. Students make presentations or posters, videos, etc. to explain the rules to other students in their class. Like the above project, the agenda is the teacher’s; it does not allow for student voice in the creation of the rules, or feature opportunities for failure and feedback to improve upon the rules.  

How to improve it:

  • Have students collect data from adults and students about which rules are needed and why—opened up to any possibility—then co-create and test them.
  • Bring in experts (lawyers, judges, police officers, politicians, business leaders, etc.) to discuss the need for rules and how they support the system of organization.
  • Make the audience a younger grade. For example, have the first graders teach the kindergartners rules and procedures to welcome them to the campus.  
  • Connect rules to a deeper reason for them. Look at examples of groups that have not established social norms and what can happen.
John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.