Engaging NGSS Assessments: Project Based Learning

This is our last post in our series on creating engaging assessments! (Don’t forget to check out those from the last two weeks on Performance Tasks and Instructionally Embedded Assessments!) We are looking at Project Based Learning.


So I am not claiming to be an expert in Project-Based or Problem Based Learning here. There are people way more qualified than me on this topic, and they can absolutely help you map out how to implement it in your OWN classroom.


That said, I just want to share a bit about how I use this approach myself.


Invasive Species Project

My first big foray into project-based learning was in an ecology unit.  I wanted to use the lens of invasive species to frame the entire ecology unit.  From resource availability to interactions in ecosystems to food webs and the movement of energy and matter ALL the way to human impacts – invasive species covers it all! I also wanted to address the Next Generation Science Standard MS-LS2-5, “Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.*” This standard has an engineering component to it, so it really does require a project of some sort.


The project I created was my Invasive Species Project.  So I incorporated phenomena about invasive species (specific examples in specific locations, to make it a true phenomenon!) into my unit throughout the learning sequences.  Students learned about resource availability and then discovered how it was changed after the introduction of an invasive species. They analyzed the interactions of the invasive species with the natives’ species to understand changes in biodiversity. So on and so forth. These were activities all students participated in, and we focused on studying what had happened in the past. 


To turn this into a problem-based or project-based learning activity, I wanted students to look to the future what could they do to address the problems caused by these species.  And that’s where the project came into place.


How To: Project-Based Learning

The first step – beyond providing the general science background knowledge through unit activities – was for students to truly understand the problem.  To do this, I gave students several options for invasive species that are affecting our local environment. This allowed them some choice without e ending up with wildly different topics (different species, ecosystems, etc.).  They spent some time researching the invasive species they chose and created a Wanted Poster to display what they had learned.  


This task really focused their attention on – what is the problem we are trying to solve? This is a great opportunity to tie in some of those NSTA Asking Questions and Defining Problems practices! Students should understand the problem – the species and what it is doing – but also what is impacting the problem. Why can’t we just fix it? What is the challenge?


Then, I had students work in groups to actually design a solution.  They had to consider the problem – the criteria for success and the constraints that made it so difficult to address the issue of invasive species – and explore solutions.  They had to identify the best course of action and design a Community Action Plan that outlined their approach. Then, students shared their solutions and evaluated the plans proposed.  Students could engage in argumentation to defend their own ideas and eventually reach consensus, identifying which plan was the best for that given species. (Or, which plan was the best overall? Which was most likely to work? Realistic? Fit within the constraints of reality? Hah.) 


My students were engaged in Science AND Engineering Practices, even though they weren’t actually building gizmos or gadgets. They were participating in a project-based or problem-based learning activity.  They were discovering more about their local environment, about the social issues that come into play with all environmental problems, and even about the limits of technology. They learned that not by me TELLING them but through their own work on the project.


Again, I’m not an expert in project-based learning, but I found this approach worked so well to engage my students and connect what we were learning in class to our local space and to real-world issues.  The project took students beyond science content and into areas we often miss in our busy science classes the interconnection of technology, society, and even ethics in our interactions with the natural world.