PBL + STEM: Being Intentional About Deeper Learning



By Josh Patterson

wholechild-STEMFor the past several years, in an effort to remain connected to my alma mater, I have served as a liaison for the university’s admissions office. In this role, I meet with prospective students who willingly choose to be interviewed by local graduates. The purpose of these meetings is to determine whether a potential student is an appropriate match for the school. Common trends have emerged from my discussions that have provided me with a strong sense of urgency for my work as an instructional leader.

As I talk to these high school seniors, I seek to find the answers to the following questions:

  • Is the student well-rounded and poised to interact in various circles?
  • Does the student possess strong interpersonal skills?
  • Does the student have a sense of social responsibility to the world around them?
  • Is the student humble and receptive to feedback?
  • Does the student have a positive disposition and a willingness to persevere in spite of possible setback or failure?

At a recent local business summit I attended, the speaker, a businessman, made this remark to the educators in the audience: “In addition to a solid foundation in reading, writing, and math, we need you to teach the soft skills. When they arrive to us, we will provide them with the technical skills.”

As an elementary school principal, how do I best prepare my students—who are eight to twelve years from high school graduation—to be socially responsible problem solvers who will make a positive contribution to their world? Curriculum standards alone are not sufficient in preparing students for tomorrow’s world. Students need meaningful, challenging, engaging opportunities to create, construct, and communicate their learning. This happens best through inquiry, specifically when STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) opportunities are deliberately integrated within project-based learning (PBL) units.

Through collaborative planning, teachers and instructional support staff create and develop integrated units of inquiry. As the standards are considered, possible connections and components of STEM are integrated into the weekly lessons. In 4th grade, students are engaged in a unit titled “Tread Lightly.” Throughout this unit, students consider ways in which humans positively and negatively affect the world. Students read a novel titled War of the Woods, discuss the perspectives of environmentalists and loggers, participate in a Socratic Seminar, and write action plans to consider how they can positively affect their world. Additional components of STEM are included to increase student interest and connectivity. For example, an oil spill is simulated and students are challenged to restore the damage done to the ocean and the affected wildlife. Additionally, students construct their own edible land fields, research and present various eco-friendly inventions, and hear from a local business owner who utilizes single stream recycling so businesses can gather all recyclable items in a single bin with no separation needed.

A PBL unit for 1st graders, on the other hand, focuses on the use and availability of water. Students are encouraged to ponder the question, “If much of the world’s surface is covered by water, why is only so little available to drink?” As students study the basic properties of water, they also explore various countries in Africa and discuss the availability of water in these areas. As the culminating task of the unit, students create their own magazine or blog post, similar to that of Time for Kids or Wonderopolis. Throughout the unit, the teachers also plan for several meaningful STEM opportunities. As students learn how water is transported in African countries, they are asked to find the best and most effective way to transport water from one side of the building to the other. Teachers record the amount collected and the time required to perform the task. Then, students brainstorm ideas and create containers and systems to improve the process. Another activity requires students to construct various filtration systems to determine the device that provides the purest water.

The greater the student involvement, the greater the student engagement, the greater the achievement, the greater the learning. With STEM’s broad focus, it is tempting to provide a buffet of unrelated, unconnected STEM activities. Yes, emphasizing the design process encourages students to be more engaged, but without connectivity to meaningful experiences, STEM activities fall short of their intended purpose. Providing STEM-related tasks within a broader PBL framework promotes an increased level of responsibility and care, both socially and academically, as students connect their learning to a larger, global context. With PBL and STEM activities, the proverbial playing field is leveled for all students. Teachers must help students understand how this approach to deeper thinking applies to their daily lives. Purposefully planning for STEM within an existing PBL framework can ensure that this occurs.


Josh Patterson is principal of Oakland Elementary School in Spartanburg (S.C.) County School District Two. He serves as cochair of the PBL action team with TransformSC, a collaboration of business leaders, policy makers, educators, parents, and students seeking to transform public schools in S.C. He is a graduate of Furman University and the University of South Carolina, an ASCD Emerging Leader, and a South Carolina ASCD board member. Connect with Patterson on Twitter @ACE_Patterson.