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Project-based Learning
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View Course and Unit Overviews for 3rd Grade Science
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What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning (PBL) engages children and teachers in finding solutions to questions about the world around them.

Our focus on PBL engages children in a process similar to that of scientists when they explore questions of the unknown. PBL approaches the teaching and learning of science by posing a driving question relevant to students' lives and asking them to find solutions, through the exploration of scientific phenomena and collaborative problem-solving. Students' emerging understanding is demonstrated in project artifacts they create using their newfound scientific knowledge.

PBL is inclusive of diverse students in regards to culture, race, and/or gender, allowing for students to share and benefit from one another's varying backgrounds. Students are encouraged to support peers in the pursuit of knowledge, creating a space where diversity can become a touchstone for deeper understanding. Given the adaptable nature of PBL, language accommodations are more straightforward: students are able to share in the language they are most comfortable in, translate for one another, and present their knowledge in non-traditional formats.

PBL aligns with a vision of the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the NGSS in which students use the three dimensions of scientific knowledge – disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts and science and engineering practices – to figure out compelling phenomena and worthwhile problems.

Features of Project-based Learning
  1. Projects begin with a driving question intended to create wonder and sustain engagement.
  2. Projects focus on important learning goals related to core science concepts and practices.
  3. Students explore a driving question by participating in scientific practices to make sense of the phenomena they are exploring.
  4. Students engage in collaborative activities to find solutions to the driving question.
  5. Students are scaffolded to participate in activities normally beyond their abilities, such as constructing models to provide a causal explanation.
  6. Students create tangible artifacts that represent their developing understanding and address the driving question.
The Research Base for Project-based Learning

The roots of project-based learning extend to the early work of educator and philosopher John Dewey who argued that learners develop personal investment and knowledge they can use when they engage in real, meaningful tasks that emulate what experts do in real-world situations. Over the past two decades, learning sciences researchers have confirmed and refined Dewey's early ideas. Drawing on this research, learning scientists developed new approaches to instruction with the goal of increasing students' engagement and helping them develop meaningful understanding. One such approach is project-based learning. Research that shows that, for students to develop an enduring understanding, knowing and doing cannot be separated. Through project work, students engage in real-world activities similar to those of professional scientists and develop integrated, deep knowledge that will allow them to draw on their understanding.

Evidence also shows that social interactions play a central role in the learning process. PBL leverages this in part through collaboration, allowing students to develop their problem-solving, decision-making, and investigative skills through supporting one another. Students can develop their understanding of scientific principles and ideas through sharing, using, and debating ideas with others. In doing so, students realize that they can synthesize knowledge, and that knowledge from their schools, homes, and local environments are valuable in making sense of the world.

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Multiple Literacies In Project-Based Learning (ML-PBL)

In order to adequately support elementary students in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, teachers need an interdisciplinary approach that integrates science, literacy, and mathematics. An interdisciplinary approach aids students in developing knowledge they can use, perceiving science as important to their lives, and building confidence that they have the skills to do science.

With the goal of meeting this need, an interdisciplinary team from the Michigan State University CREATE for STEM Institute, with partners at the University of Michigan, designed and tested rigorous project-based learning units for the upper elementary grades that engage students in sense-making using language literacy and mathematical tools to develop usable science knowledge.

Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning (ML-PBL) resources focus on science teaching and learning to build literacy and mathematical capabilities in students, and to create access for diverse learners. ML-PBL integrates academic and social and emotional (SEL) learning goals related to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) as well as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Literacy and Mathematics to support student learning. These materials reflect a significant interdisciplinary approach by integrating science, literacy, and mathematics.

This work is supported by the George Lucas Educational Foundation. The materials are available as Creative Commons, open educational resources, not for commercial profit resources. To learn more about the project and the materials you can go to our team's website.

Unit Summaries
U3.1 Squirrels / Adaptation

Students observe squirrels in their community, and plan and conduct investigations and develop models to explain how the squirrels interact with other organisms in their environment to meet their needs for survival, exploring the question: Why do I see so many squirrels, but I can find any stegosauruses? For the final artifact, students create a model to explain that as the environment changed, some animals (mammals) were able to adapt and others (dinosaurs) died out. They expand the model in writing or performance.

Squirrels Table of Contents

U3.2 Toys / Forces and Motion

Students make prototypes of moving toys then observe and develop models to describe the pattern of motion to explore: How can we design fun moving toys that other kids can build? For the final artifact, students revise their models and develop engineering solutions, then produce a design portfolio to show how they have incorporated what they have learned.

Toys Table of Contents

U3.3 Birds / Biodiversity

Students conduct fieldwork to gather information about the birds that live near the school. They make claims that the birds' physical and behavioral traits are adapted to the habitat they live in to explore: How can we help the birds around our school grow up and thrive? For the final artifact, students design bird feeders that take into account the physical and behavioral traits, the changing weather, the features of the environment, and the needs for reproduction of the focal bird.

Birds Table of Contents

U3.4 Plants / Weather / Climate

Students ask questions, make observations, investigate, and model how plants' traits affect their survival to explore: How can we plan gardens for our community to grow plants for food? The final artifact includes planning a garden, and designing, testing, and making claims about the merits of a solution (tool or process) to protect the garden plants from weather-related hazards or changes in the environment.

Plants Table of Contents

ML-PBL Research Results

ML-PBL researchers carefully measured the effects of ML-PBL implementation by designing a cluster randomized trial of the Grade 3 ML-PBL science units in Michigan. The study included 23 treatment schools and 23 control schools with 2,019 students. We randomized and balanced treatment and control schools based on state administrative data. The treatment consisted of the ML-PBL program, while the control condition received professional development on the NGSS only and continued science "business-as-usual." The schools represent different regions of the state and over sample low income and minority students.

To measure the impact we completed observations, videos, interviews, assessments and social and emotional learning surveys. Following the guidelines of the What Works Clearinghouse (IES, 2017), we administered a summative assessment using items developed by the State of Michigan that aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards for 3rd grade. Standard statistical procedures show a positive substantial main effect for the treatment. Students in ML-PBL classrooms received test scores significantly higher than those in control classrooms with the main effect not differing by socioeconomic status, race or gender. Students in the treatment group also showed significant positive changes with respect to growth in social and emotional learning, in ownership, self-responsibility and collaboration.

What Practitioners and Students are Saying about ML-PBL

After one year with ML-PBL, I feel like a science
teacher again.

- Grade 3 teacher in Michigan (teaches all subjects)

Science is when we learn the most, more than other times because we want to learn about the animals we don't know a lot about.

- Grade 3 Student, Wisconsin

Sometimes other people say things, scientists, like that the dinosaurs died because the meteor hit and they say that it was a volcano and they argue about things. I like the unit because it teaches me more about how to do the same kind of arguing. Using evidence and reasoning to back up my claims. Like scientists, they argue using evidence, reasoning and they back up what they say.

- Grade 3 Student, Wisconsin

Watch this video to learn more about this course from participating teachers.

There's no going back.

It's changed the way I have taught throughout the day, it just makes me a better teacher.

The kids just get so much more excited about it… My administrators … can tell I am more excited about my job in general.

The units are so relatable; it's empowering for me
as a teacher.

- Grade 3 teacher in Michigan

I also helped the group... And I can help the other kids learn. When I am quiet, other people can listen too, and when I do talk they hear me and they look at me instead of watching the teacher. In the discussion, I wanted to raise my hand, and then I say that there are other structures inside of us too, like in our hands and our ears.

- Grade 3 Student, Wisconsin

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Request Access

Research and revision of the Multiple Literacies in Project-based Learning unit materials is ongoing. An updated version of the Grade 3 units is available as a free open education resource to educators, instructors, and administrators. Sprocket is designed for teacher access, including teacher lesson planning and support materials, 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 the course to best suit the needs of their classrooms and for them to share their adaptations with other members of the Sprocket community.

To inquire about Multiple Literacies in Project-based Learning professional learning opportunities for your school or school district, please contact Chris Reimann, reimannc@msu.edu, Next-Gen PBL. Options include in-person professional development sessions, on-site or virtual coaching, and collaborative planning support. Additional Professional Learning resources will be posted on the Sprocket site beginning in Summer 2020.

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