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Project-based Learning
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Defining Project Based Learning

Too often, school does not engage students and leaves them unprepared for active participation and success in college, careers, and democratic life. For students and teachers who want education to be rigorous, personally relevant and connected to authentic challenges, project-based learning is a way to deeply learn the content and skills needed to engage and empower students to lead fulfilling lives and productively contribute to creating a better world. By making learning personally and socially meaningful, students have a sense of purpose in school, and teachers are motivated to stay in the profession and help students engage with topics that matter to all of us. In a project-based learning classroom:

Students Learn Through Meaningful and Challenging Projects:
Well-designed, coherent projects integrate content and skills across multiple academic subjects when possible, and gradually build student knowledge through challenging, complex tasks.

Students Deeply Understand Content:
Deep content understanding is supported when students create high-quality, complex work by conducting research, applying ideas to real-world scenarios, revisiting concepts from different angles, generating and revising artifacts guided by feedback and reflection processes, and publicly presenting their work.

Students Interact Socially:
Social interactions that connect to who students are as people facilitate authentic scenarios where students can feel safe to productively struggle and take intellectual risks, display empathy and care for others, advocate for their beliefs, understand diverse perspectives, build relationships, and collaborate productively within a learning community.

Students are Invested:
Students are invested in their own learning because projects focus on authentic issues that they care about and that spark a genuine love of learning.

Driven by Research

Project-Based learning has its roots in prominent student-centered learning theories including John Dewey’s experiential-based philosophy and William Kilpatrick’s “project-method” approach. More recently, research from cognitive science and the learning sciences on how people learn reveals that there is evidence behind some of the core principles of project-based learning supporting the acquisition of what researchers call adaptive expertise, which is the ability to apply meaningfully knowledge and skills flexibly and creatively in different situations. In building adaptive expertise in learners, three key findings from the research point to the importance of learning environments that place learners at the center and value and support:

  • deep conceptual understanding rather than superficial learning
  • coherent and authentic knowledge rather than compartmentalized and decontextualized learning, and
  • collaborative and active learning rather than learning in isolation.

Project-based learning is the current pedagogical approach most in line with this research. By engaging students in answering driving questions and finding solutions to authentic, complex problems through sustained collaborative inquiry and investigation, project-based curricula are organized to support learners with deeply understanding core subject area content as key concepts spiral (or loop) throughout the course and are revisited in new contexts, requiring students to apply understanding in new and creative ways. This coherent organization of knowledge and the application and adaptation of content to novel situations leads to clear benefits in the classroom:

Deeper conceptual understanding and greater retention of content

Increased ability of students to problem solve, collaborate, and think critically

Increased student engagement and interest

Increased sense of community and belonging

For more information on the research behind project-based learning, see this literature review conducted by educational researchers MDRC. To learn more about project-based learning, visit our articles on our website.

What Practitioners are Saying

It has made me more aware and confident in "letting go" and making my classroom focus more on students becoming the "drivers" of their learning and me becoming more of the "coach" than the fountain of knowledge - I think this will serve them well as they transition into college where they have to take control of their learning.

- High School Social Studies Teacher in Illinois

Student engagement in my class has gone up 100%. The structure of the projects makes it impossible for a student to not be actively involved in class activities. Students have been able to take what they are learning in books and lectures and apply that information to the projects. I frequently hear student using vocabulary words and terms (not prompted by me) when discussing the projects.

- High School Science Teacher in Virginia

I can say with confidence that my students this year, after using the KIA curriculum, felt better about their performance on the AP Exam than students I have taught in the past. I've always wanted to do more PBL in my government instruction; but never really had the time to pull it together properly. KIA is ready to go, but easily adaptable.

- High School Social Studies Teacher in Illinois

KIA has allowed me to further explore and implement an approach in my class that is learner centered and focused on the voice and choice of the learners in the room.

- High School Science Teacher in California

AP Environmental Science

The Knowledge in Action project began in 2008 as a collaboration between education researchers at the University of Washington and AP US Government and Politics teachers in public schools in and around the Seattle area. From there, the Knowledge in Action project expanded to AP Environmental Science. From the start, the course was co-designed with teachers and researchers who together created each of the five projects, tested them in classrooms, collected and analyzed data and feedback from students and teachers, and revised the projects using a continuous improvement framework. The course is an active and engaging project-based approach to the standard AP Environmental Science course. The subject matter is the same as in a traditionally taught course, but it is organized in a different way. Students use a core set of ideas, concepts, and skills to analyze facts and as a result they gain an analytical perspective on environmental science. By applying concepts, students deepen their understanding and further develop their knowledge in a way that is widely referred to as deeper learning. The driving question for the course is, How can we rethink our use of the world’s resources?

AP Environmental Science Course Syllabus

Course Overview

The subject matter is the same as in a traditionally taught course, but it is organized in a different way. Students use a core set of ideas, concepts, and skills to analyze facts and as a result they gain an analytical perspective on environmental science. By applying concepts, students deepen their understanding and further develop their knowledge in a way that is widely referred to as deeper learning.

The Projects

This course contains five projects, plus a course introduction and course closure, that are organized around the following question: “How can we rethink our use of the world’s resources?” Each project involves investigations of sustainability that help contextualize the content required by the new College Board course framework.

Course Introduction

In the course introduction, students explore a case study to explore the question: “What does sustainability mean?” They practice evaluating hypotheses, creating arguments, and using evidence to explain the concept of the tragedy of the commons, and they apply a model of sustainability to modern-day environmental issues.

Ecological Footprint

Students evaluate their individual resource usage and analyze their personal impact on the environment. Students also conduct a life cycle analysis on commonly used products at home or at school to begin to understand how to use systems thinking as an analytical tool for making sound environmental decisions. Students then develop and present a persuasive, well-researched proposal to their family with ways to reduce their resource consumption to live more sustainably.

Ecological Footprint Unit Plan

My Community Ecology

In My Community Ecology, students complete a biomap of a local site slated for development. Using three lenses of sustainability, the students infer how human development on that site could impact the ecosystem. At the end of the unit, students present their research to an outside audience in which they describe the impacts of the proposed development and suggest evidence-based sustainable improvements.

My Community Ecology Unit Plan

Food Systems

In this project, students work in groups to create a plan for a sustainable farm. As they learn new information, they must make revisions to their farm plans based on new constraints such as pests, weather, irrigation issues, and requests from a client. They are asked to consider how economic issues such as farm subsidies and food safety and security laws may impact their farm. By the end of the project, students have a working farm that meets a complex set of real-world constraints.

Food Systems Unit Plan

Oceans in Action

In this project, students are all assigned citizen roles on a fictitious island community. Each citizen role has a set of values that they will maintain while the community argues how to recover from its economic decline. Two different industries have proposed to operate from the island, and students debate through a town council meeting, whether to bring one, both, or neither of these industries to the island, and if so, under what conditions.

Oceans in Action Unit Plan

Global Climate Summit

In Global Climate Summit, students are all assigned to be the leaders of specific countries in the world, and they have all been invited to an international environmental summit. Students will research factors in their countries and, using this information, will decide how climate change could affect their country and how their policies could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Students then run a global climate summit in class to defend their perspectives and ultimately decide who has the responsibility to reduce climate emissions and how it can be accomplished.

Global Climate Summit Unit Plan

Course Closure

Students will consider the social, economic and environmental factors on sustainability and will discuss the potential impact of “The Power of Many”. This is a chance for students to think about and co-create a local, authentic, relevant project at their school or in the community to apply what they have learned in the course and to leave with a sense of practical accomplishment.

* This APES course will include an alignment and looping guide to the new 2019 College Board APES Framework. The guide will provide an overview of alignment to the framework and suggestions for course modifications in areas with weak alignment. Revisions are currently underway to complete the full alignment of this APES course [The new framework was released while revisions were already underway].

According to College Board: “For 2019-20, only new teachers of AP Computer Science Principles, AP Research, and AP Seminar need to submit a syllabus for course authorization. For all other courses, new teachers do not need to submit a syllabus this year. They simply need to add the course, complete the AP Course Audit form and download the unit guides.”


University of Washington researchers investigated whether this project-based approach to the course could result in the same or better performance on the AP Exam as compared with student performance on the exam after taking the traditionally taught AP course. Researchers also measured students’ engagement and performance on measures of deeper learning. Preliminary findings showed that students report higher degrees of engagement and interest in the Knowledge in Action classrooms and they perform equally as well on the AP Exam.

Ongoing research taking place across nearly 70 schools and five urban districts will evaluate if these results can be replicated within multiple, varied school contexts. Preliminary results from the research reveal that after implementing KIA for an entire school year:


of teachers would encourage their school to adopt KIA curriculum for all AP classes


of teachers would encourage non-AP teachers to use elements of the KIA project-based approach and also plan to use KIA the next time they teach AP U.S. Government and Politics


of teachers plan to use elements of KIA in their non-AP U.S. Government and Politics courses

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The revised AP Environmental Science Course is now available. You may request access now and you will be notified once your account is created.

This curriculum is available as a free open education resource to educators, instructors, and administrators. Sprocket is designed for teacher access only and is not open to students. You may request access now and you will be notified once your account is created.

We encourage educators to adapt our curriculum to best suit the needs of their classrooms and for them to share it with other members of the Sprocket community.

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