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.
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