Shining a Spotlight on Three Exemplars of Project Based Learning

This summer I began taking courses online through Wilkes University to add a STEM endorsement to my Pennsylvania Teaching Certificate.  This past week I began one of the required courses, Project Based Learning.  In my STEAM classroom, I have designed 9 weeks long projects, however, I look forward to learning how to fully implement Project Based Learning properly in my classroom.  During the first week of this course, we viewed videos showcasing three different examples of project-based learning.  You can view the videos below.


Upon viewing these videos, I began noticing common themes that these three examples shared. For instance, in all three examples students worked in teams and the projects required collaboration among students.  In my STEAM class, my students work on all their projects as a team.  It isn’t always easy, but learning how to work together is important for students’ future careers and for the good of society.

Often in these examples, there was evidence of collaboration that stretched beyond the classroom.   All three examples demonstrated community and global outreach.  Thanks to the internet, students who participated in the Monarch Butterfly project collaborated with students from across the globe.  They also became pen pals by writing students from different countries (Ellis, 2002b).  Students participating in the geometry project in Eeva Reeder’s geometry class and students from Newsome Park Elementary School took field trips to do research, connect with their community and deepen their knowledge. The teachers in these last two examples also called in guest speakers who are experts in the field students were studying (Ellis, 2002a, 2001).  In the case of the geometry project, the architects served as mentors, coaches, and judges throughout the project (Ellis, 2002a).

The roles of students and teachers were similar in all three of the PBL examples.  In PBL the roles of teachers and students are different than in a traditional classroom.  The learning in PBL is student directed.  Teachers take on a role of facilitator and mentor.  Frances Koontz the teacher from Rockledge Elementary that facilitated the Monarch Butterfly project in her classroom stated: “… I can step back, now that they have this knowledge and just let interact with each other and bring out a product.  It is just wonderful to watch” (Ellis, 2002b).  In regard to student and teacher roles in a PBL classroom, teacher from Newsome Park Elementary, Patty Vreeland stated: “Even though it looks like the kids are doing all the hard work, there’s a lotta planning that goes on behind it to make sure that the work is there for them” (Ellis, 2001)”.  By taking a break from direct instruction, teachers can provide time in their classroom to foster student choice and increase motivation and engagement.

Additionally, technology was used to engage students and enhance learning in all three PBL examples.  Technology in these projects was not used simply to use it, but rather to transform student learning.  Students’ technology use went beyond simple internet research. In the case of the Monarch Butterfly project,  they collaborated online by collecting data and sharing it on an online database (Ellis, 2002b).  Students used technology to create presentations that help them build their communication skills.  Student at Newsome Elementary also used technology to create mind maps. “The students of today are really more in tune with everything that they have coming in at them visually, so using the technology to represent their learning has actually increased the quality of their work” (Ellis, 2001).  Personally, I know firsthand how the use of mind mapping can transform learning.  While working on my Master’s Degree in Instructional Technology, I conducted a quantitative Action Research project that researched the impact of the use of mindtools on student achievement.  The following quote from Modeling with Technology:  Mindtools for Conceptual Change summarizes why the use of mindtools in an effective teaching method.

“Among the best ways (not the only way) to use computers as support for meaningful learning (i.e., conceptual change) is to use technology-based modeling tools (i.e.; Mindtools).  Such tools help learners externalize internal conceptual models, modify their structure, and amplify their meaning by providing alternative representations” (Jonassen, 2006, p. 24-25).

I believe that students today are excellent consumers of technology, but in school, we need to show them how to use technology to be producers.

Another ongoing theme that I noticed popping up in all three examples was cross-curricular learning.  These projects did not just touch on one content area, but several.  Teachers were able to tie in state standards from several different subject areas in one project.  In the Monarch Butterfly video, teacher, Frances Koontz stated: “Almost every part of my curriculum can be brought into Journey North, and Journey North can be integrated in some way into it. And it meets the state standards which is, of course, my benchmark” (Ellis, 2002b).  As all teachers know, where there are state standards, there are state standardized tests.  In all three cases, teachers and principals saw an improvement in student knowledge and skill acquisition which consequently improved test scores.  Regarding standardized testing Eeva Reeder stated:

“My colleagues ask me, how do I possibly find time for project-based learning when there are so many concepts to cover, so much curriculum to cover and the pressure to get students ready for high stakes tests? And my answer to them is that applied learning, or project-based learning, is the most effective way to deliver information and it’s the most effective way for students to understand concepts. Once they have learned a skill by having to use it, it’s theirs. You don’t need to cram for it on the test. It’s a way of learning information that works” (Ellis, 2002a)

In my STEAM program, I also focus on creating cross-curricular projects.  Prior to becoming a STEAM teacher, I began to allocate time in my 1st-grade classroom to STEAM projects.  I hope more teachers will become brave enough to try PBL out for themselves!

All three PBL examples created opportunities for authentic learning.  Students were introduced to real-world problems.  Eeva Reader stated:

“It became immediately apparent to me as a teacher that talking to kids didn’t cause them to really deeply learn concepts, and they might learn the material, learn it, so that they could spit back formulas and so on, on a paper and pencil test. But they weren’t able to apply it in a context that was outside of that unit and outside of that worksheet or book page… It’s when they can use what they learn in class to solve a problem that I know that they’ve learned the material” (Ellis, 2002a)

Application of new knowledge to a real-world problem also positively impacted achievement at Newsome Park Elementary.  The principal, Peter Bender stated:

“Our test scores have improved, mainly I think because of the fact that we’ve connected the learning to real-world problems, and the integration of technology has helped the students to actually produce quality products. So that’s the reward, and to me, it’s been probably the most rewarding way of teaching and learning that I’ve experienced in my thirty years” (Ellis, 2001).

Standardized testing has taken a lot of joy out of teaching and learning, but if a clear connection between PBL and achievement can be established, then there is hope to bring joy back into classrooms!

This week we were introduced to the Buck Institute’s Essential Project Design Elements for Gold Standard PBL (Larimer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015).  I will use these seven design elements to assess whether the three examples discussed above are Gold Standard examples of PBL.


Essential Project Design Elements March of the Monarchs Applying Math Skills to a Real-World Problem From Worms to Wall Street
Challenging Problem or Question Students were challenged with tracking the path of Monarch Butterflies migration. Students are challenged to design a state of the art high school for the year 2050.  Students work in teams and for the design competition. The teacher guides students to develop their own question to research.
Sustained Inquiry Students worked on this project for an extended period of time. The project lasts 5-6 weeks. Projects last an entire semester.
Authenticity Project taps into students’ natural curiosity of their world and animals in it. Students apply skills acquired in geometry class to solve a real-world problem.  Students are Learning is authentic and students research real-world problems.  (ie: the 1st-grade class was researching Cystic Fibrosis).
Student Voice & Choice Students wrote letters to their pen pals which allowed them to use their voice.  Choice was not clearly evident in this project. Students used their voice to present their plans for their design.  Students had to make a lot of choices and decisions throughout the project. The class selects their topic for their semester-long project. Students share their research through presentations.
Reflection Student reflection on learning throughout the project is evident via peer discussion, however, it is unclear whether the formal, explicit reflection is occurring.


Teacher reflection was evident because she altered the rubric each year as she made modifications to the project.  Student reflection wasn’t made as obvious. It is unclear what explicit, formal reflection is happening.
Critique & Revision Not clearly evident, but I would assume there was some peer critique happening naturally during team discussions. Students are mentored and critiqued by real architects throughout the process. Display boards are reviewed and critiqued by parents and peers.
Public Product Students send letters to real people.  Students share their data on the public online database. Students presented their final project at an architectural firm. Students share final projects with parents.


In conclusion, I felt that all three examples of PBL were strong, however, there was not enough information provided about types of formal reflection occurring for me to be able to determine if they are Gold Standard based on the Buck Institute’s seven Essential Project Design Elements.  I feel that the Monarch Butterfly did a great job of creating global connections.  I feel that the geometry design project was strongest in the area of critique and revision.  I thought Newsome Park Elementary did a great job creating opportunities for student choice, and I feel like their approach was a blended approach of Inquiry-Based Learning and Project Based Learning.  I believe this blended approach provides an opportunity for student voice and student choice.  Watching this video helped me to begin to form ideas about how Inquiry-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning can be used in conjunction with one another. Currently, I am taking courses on both of these approaches and how to integrate the two has been a question in my mind.  The principal at Newsome Park Elementary, Peter Bender stated: “Project-based learning was really the delivery model that we felt would allow kids to learn, and really learn about what they wanna learn about. I mean, so many years, we’ve been pumping kids full of stuff that we think is appropriate, and really, in many instances, maybe that was successful, but it’s much more successful and exhilarating when kids have the input that we allow them to have here at Newsome Park” (Ellis, 2001).   By allowing students to make choices in their projects, students will be more motivated to learn and more engaged in the project.

Do you feel that these projects meet the Buck Institutes Gold Standard?  Which example did you find to be the strongest example of PBL?  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


Ellis, K. (Producer). (2002a). “Academics Meet Architecture” [Video]. Mountlake Terrace High School, Mountlake Terrace, Washington. The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved from:

Ellis, K. (Producer). (2001). “From Worms to Wall Street” [Video]. Newsome Park Elementary School, Newport News, Virginia.  The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved from:

Ellis, K. (Producer). (2002b). “Journey North” [Video]. Rockledge Elementary School, Bowie, Maryland. The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved from:

Jonassen, D.H. (2006). Modeling with Technology:  Mindtools for Conceptual Change. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall

Larimer, J., Mergendoller, J., & Boss, J. (2015, April 21). “Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements” [blog post]. Retrieved from

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