Like most teachers, I have asked students to work on projects in my classes. The idea of having students make and create projects is not new. Project-based learning (PBL), however, shifts student learning to be through the project rather than using the project as a reflection of learning at the end of a unit or course. In several of my past computer science courses, students have created some well-thought-out projects. One criterion I required was for them to include a new computer programming concept that they researched with in-depth inquiry, and that they then implemented in their work. Aside from this component, the project was primarily an activity that occurred at the end of the course and simply had students building on their previous knowledge. This way of learning, while at times effective, did not seem true to what students might face in a real-world context where they would need to problem-solve, collaborate, and plan out creative solutions. (All bold items in this article refer to the eight essentials of project-based learning from The Buck Institute for Education and are more fully explained here.)
At our school we have been actively moving towards the inclusion of The Buck Institute for Education’s (BIE) model of project-based learning in all classes. As a result, in June 2012, several colleagues and I attended PBL World, a project-based learning conference with educators primarily from the U.S. and Canada. This conference added to my initial foundation of PBL and provided yet another nudge for me to be more intentional about using PBL as method of instruction rather than simply having students do projects as an assessment.
Currently, I am teaching a combined grade 9 applied mathematics and open-level computer applications course. This year-long course is the first time that we have intentionally combined mathematics and computers. We hoped to integrate technology in mathematics learning and also to provide a block of time in which a project could be planned, implemented, and executed on a larger scale. I have used small- and medium-sized projects that have lasted from several days to several weeks in the past, but here was a chance to have a project as the focal point for an entire course.