My Journey to Project-Based Learning

Three Days into My Teaching Career, 1994

Twenty-nine students dutifully pulled out a worksheet. Words like erosion, deposition, and alluvial spilled into every blank. The power of assigning humbled and scared me. If my command generated this much work, I wondered, how much would students do if they really wanted to learn something?

I have spent my career exploring the power of intrinsically motivated learners, and they, in turn, have inspired me to keep discovering. Twenty years later, my course has evolved into a series of student-shaped projects that open students’ eyes to how they, too, could be physicists. But it was a long road to get there.

My First Big Project, 1999

After spring break, I announced to my students that they were ready to be physicists. I had a list of twelve areas for them to study through independent research. Students could also recommend areas to explore. They were required to track their regular progress, learn some new physics, build a model, utilize resources outside those in the classroom, and make a final product. Students explored optics, holography, high speed and trick photography, pinhole cameras, and astronomy. Others investigated waves through audio engineering, quantum mechanics readings, and electronics circuits. Some students researched careers in science and looked at what it would take to make a living as a scientist.

A student walked up to me at the end of class. He sheepishly asked, “Can I do my career visit on Friday?” One requirement of the project I had assigned was that students utilize an outside resource; students would often arrange to visit a professional outside of school. I asked this young man where he was going. Instead of answering, he indicated that he needed permission to be out for the whole day. I asked again. His answer? He was going to the Field Museum, a two-hour drive away. He had scheduled to shadow a paleontologist . . . in Chicago! This student is an anthropologist today.

The Physics of Sculpture, 2008

Newton’s third law, to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction, inspired me to ask students a question, “How do artists use this law?” I showed them several pieces of Alexander Calder’s work with kinetic sculptures. We began creating our own kinetic sculptures, drawing free-body diagrams of the important hinges, calculating torques to verify why the balances we had chosen were perfect. One sculpture, “The Circle of Life,” had a set of wire animals ever-decreasing in size that chased each other when plucked. The sculpture won the editor’s choice award in a school art competition, and allowed a student to bring together his skill in art, his love for biology, and his affinity for physics principles in ways I had never planned. Allowing students to explore physics through art opened my eyes to “the power of the arts” (Berger 79). When we tap into beauty, worship, joy, care, or justice in an academic setting, we move the knowledge from head to heart. This powerfully cements the learning into the very being of the student, not to be forgotten after next week’s exam.

Energy in Nicaragua, 2009

In 2009, I had dabbled enough with project-based units and lessons that I decided to switch the entire year to a project-based focus. To achieve this, the class needed a question that would direct and inspire our work in physics for the year. I began with a simple activity; students gathered data on motion, modeling it with charts and graphs. We then looked at Matthew 25, asking the question, “What could all this possibly have to do with physics? What role does physics play in the kingdom of God?” I told them a story about schools in Nicaragua, schools with no energy for fans, CD players, or lights. Then I asked again, “What does all this have to do with physics?” We then articulated our question that would drive our year: “How can a class of physics students learn all the physic principles needed to bring energy to rural schools in Nicaragua?”

The Melting Point of a Slurpee, 2009

I love the intricacies of melting and boiling. I see life lessons in the ideas of entropy and thermodynamics. My understanding of these laws shapes how I use appliances in my home, how I approach cooking, and how I drive. These are significant area of physics, with meaty formulas and connections to diverse applications. But how would I get my students to need to know about thermodynamics? Frank Smith points out, “Experienced members [of a club] help you to do those things that interest you” (18). What question will get my students to see the wonderful content of thermodynamics as members of the “club” of physicists see it? I asked my students, “How can we design a device and substance that stays at –4 degrees Celsius for fifteen minutes?”

Students built, tried, and failed. Substances that I never thought of showed up in our physics lab: olive oil, ethanol, peanut butter. Mini-lessons were given on specific heat, joules, watts, and heats of formation. Students needed to know how to do many types of problems in order to solve their challenge. There were additional chemistry mini-lessons: colligative properties and freezing point depression. Finally, one group with many failures under their belts, pulled me aside, clandestinely looking around to make sure no one was in earshot. They asked, “Can we go get a Slurpee? We have a theory.” I let them go.

They came back with five Slurpees, one for each of them, one for me, and one to test. They prepared their experiment and ran their trials. They called me over. There the Slurpee sat. Fifteen minutes, and barely a tenth of a degree of temperature change. I looked at the graph, scratched my head, and looked in the cup at the bright blue crystals. I never would have thought that some chemist made temperature stabilizing recipes for both the Slurpee and cup that would produce such marvelous results. This is what my students and I discovered. Several years ago a chemist in a convenience store kitchen asked the question, “How can we design a device and substance that stays at –4 degrees Celsius for fifteen minutes?”

Ninety Views on YouTube, 2011

A significant portion of our year in physics is spent working with energy. In November 2011, the city of Holland announced a student video contest to promote the city’s new energy plan. Students wrote our driving question, “How can we use our talents and resources to the best of our abilities to understand physics in order to help our community?” Since the class had formed its question out of the needs of the community, we were poised and ready to respond by making effective videos.

We enlisted resources in the community. A contact of mine at the local power company had a list of businesses using city funds to retrofit their businesses to be more efficient. Teams of students interviewed businesses to make videos that described business practices encouraging a more stewardly use of earth’s resources. An agreed-upon requirement was that every video should garner ninety hits on YouTube. When faced with a poor video, I would ask, “Do you think that you want ninety of your Facebook friends to watch that?” Students would ask if the physics details were right; they worked to shorten the videos; they sharpened their focus in the videos. They worked to bring the kingdom of God right here, right now. Six different teams of students won awards for their videos, including one for most views. The energy plan is being slowly implemented in ways that the city never expected when they started pushing for a new coal plant.

What I Have Learned

Project-based learning must include important content, content so important I do not want students to forget it; content that actually shapes my life in large, small, serious, or playful ways; content that helps me understand God’s world better. My journey started when I realized that much of the content I had been teaching disappeared after the “importance” test. If I wanted students to learn in a way that changed who they were, I needed to do something different.

Project-based learning requires everyone to keep asking new questions on their way to the often muddy answer to the driving question. A driving question generates more questions. What do we need to know? Whom do we need to meet and interview? Which experts can help us? Who is affected by our question? What is the latest research? What models can we make to help us? What else do we need to know?

The content in textbooks and the achievement standards we set for our students have a purpose. A driving question reveals that purpose to both students and teachers. Often that purpose has students working to restore the world to its original created glory.

After reflection and feedback, project-based learning requires careful revision. Jerome Bruner proclaims, “Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.” Student needs to see us model the whole process. As we navigate questions that will lead us to answers, we will stumble. Students need to see us stumble, take the information, and then try something new. They need to see we do not have a spirit of fear in us. They need us to work alongside of them to the finish, or else cry beside them when solutions are hard to come by. Tests and worksheets with correct answers do not often provide those opportunities. Projects do.

Project-based learning is by nature a creative process. God calls us each to be creative, to build, and to express ourselves. God knits a unique part of his infinite nature into each of us. Sharing our uniqueness with those around us glorifies God and gives a clearer vision of God. It takes exploration and creativity to express that uniqueness, that part of God’s image we are designed to reflect. We need to help students explore who they are so that they can more clearly express what they know of God; we will grow ourselves from hearing and seeing that expression. Our students’ faith and our own faith will deepen as we witness our students discover that they, too, were designed to mirror God’s image in their own unique ways.

Looking back on twenty years, I am happy with the question God gave me to explore: How can I teach physics in ways that brings glory to the King and helps my students to see God? Project-based learning can help our students glorify our King and reveal to us all a clearer picture of our great God.

Works Cited

  • Berger, Ron. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.
  •  Bruner, Jerome as cited on “For the Love of Learning: Real Assessment for Learning.” Web. 8 Dec. 2012 <>.
  •  Smith, Frank. The Book of Learning and Forgetting. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.