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August 17, 2021

Why a Project-Based Approach to Environmental Science Makes Sense

Environmental Science (ES) is taught in a variety of ways. Most students are exposed to it through lessons and units aligned to NGSS standards. Some students learn about it informally through participating in extracurricular clubs or visiting a local park or nature center. Others may even take it as a rigorous elective focused on preparing them for the eventual AP exam. But whatever form that engagement takes, one thing is clear; the best way to ensure that the next generation of conservationists and citizens are ready to tackle the planet’s most urgent problems is through project-based learning. 

Project-based learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach to teaching that builds knowledge and skills through the solving of authentic, real-world problems and challenges. Since every community on the planet has an impact on or interacts with the natural world, PBL is a great framework to help students meet ES standards and goals. 

In my home state of Minnesota for example, we are known for having a fair number of lakes. During a recent project, students learned about the different ways human activity impairs the health of local lakes. In response to their tests and research, they developed “Lake Profiles” that were published and posted in an effort to bring public awareness to this issue. You can learn more about this project here or in this upcoming book I co-authored with PBL expert Jorge Valenzuela being published by ISTE later this month. 


Students collected and tested lake water from the Twin Cities area, recording their data to inform the design of their lake profiles.

Anecdotal evidence like this is compelling, but even more so when it’s paired with research. Recent studies also support the use of PBL as an effective method for ES instruction. A two-year study conducted by Lucas Educational Research found that high school students who studied ES using a project-based approach outperformed their peers who participated in more traditionally structured classes. The research also showed that these gains were made by all students, including those attending Title I schools, and were also evident in science taught at the elementary level. To quote LER Executive Director Kristen De Vivo, “PBL works. It works for everyone, and we can measure it.” 

If you are interested in getting started with PBL in your own classroom, there are three ways you can get started on the right foot;

Use a High-Quality Model

PBL is as popular now as it ever has been and there are lots of organizations sharing resources on how to incorporate it into your own practice. However, not all PBL models are high-quality, meaning that they aren’t backed by research showing how they support deeper learning. Two models that have extensive supporting evidence behind them are PBLWorks’ Gold Standard model and the HQPBL model

Emphasize Authentic Connections

Consider which of your learning goals are the most real-world and build projects around those. Connecting standards to authentic problems or processes helps illustrate how the knowledge they are gaining is useful outside of preparing for a test or filling out a worksheet. Ask yourself; “who needs to know this standard to do their job?” or, “where is this standard used to solve a problem?” This will connect you to all kinds of resources, including outside experts you could potentially integrate into your projects.       

Collaborate with Likeminded Teachers

Whether you are new to PBL or a seasoned practitioner, having a collaborative thought partner is essential. Partners can provide valuable feedback, look over your project designs, or help connect you with resources you can integrate into your classrooms. If you don’t have one at your school, look into joining an online community such as the Project-Based Learning Community group on Facebook.   


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