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Project-based learning in elementary science: How teachers transform classrooms

Introducing a new curriculum can be daunting. Changing your approach to teaching is even more challenging.

But for the elementary teachers who have used Michigan State University’s project-based learning model in science, that anxiety has slowly shifted to joy—a kind of satisfaction that comes from seeing their students not only learning about, but understanding, the world around them with new excitement.

Now, many of their classroom transformations have been chronicled in a new book for fellow educators.

Children working on science project together

“Science Education Through Multiple Literacies: Project-based Learning in Elementary School,” co-edited by MSU scholars Joe Krajcik and Barbara Schneider, was published by Harvard Education Press in December 2021.

The book is based on Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning, or ML-PBL, a long-term effort to develop freely available materials and related resources for grades 3-5 that have been shown to increase achievement and social and emotional learning. This story is told through the experiences of nine third-grade teachers who participated in the project.

“These cases provide a window into the transformation of teachers, and the challenges and opportunities of using project-based learning,” said Barbara Schneider, the John A. Hannah University Distinguished Professor in Education and Sociology at MSU. “They each tell a different story about how these changes occurred in their own classroom and how their students responded.”

ML-PBL integrates the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core State Standards in literacy and mathematics using the principles of project-based learning. PBL represents the essence of doing science—encouraging young students to answer interesting questions about phenomena in their community, collaborate with their classmates and demonstrate their thinking.

The research project, which involved 91 teachers and over 2,000 students in Michigan and Wisconsin, is funded by Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

The researchers and their collaborators created four third-grade PBL units, including instructional materials, assessments and sustained professional learning opportunities for teachers.

Readers of the new book will see how those units—from following local squirrels to designing moving toys—came to life in real classrooms. The approachable text is filled with anecdotes, photos and examples of student work.

Mr. Starr, one of the third-grade teachers, explained how ML-PBL shifted his teaching:

“I started off with one question; and before long, the class and I were building on another question and then another using the previous knowledge, and soon they were discovering new questions and ideas on their own. At first it was weird, all that questioning, but soon I started to notice that I was doing it in math and reading … This experience has opened up the way I teach, and the students feel their ideas are important and valued and are willing to engage in their learning even more.”

Mr. Starr, Third-Grade Teacher & ML-PBL Project Participant

Krajcik, director of the CREATE for STEM Institute and a Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education, has spent his career improving science teaching at all levels. He and Schneider also have conducted international research on the effects of project-based learning for science classrooms at the high school level.

They argue there has never been a greater need to ensure students can use scientific literacy to help solve problems in their communities and the world. And that requires a new way of teaching.

Few resources have existed to support to help elementary teachers enact PBL, until now. Fourth and fifth grade materials are also being developed.

“We designed and tested ML-PBL with the hope of transforming the teaching and learning of elementary science instruction so that teachers and children alike would experience and find joy in doing science,” Krajcik writes in the book’s preface. “The ultimate goal is that teachers and children are empowered to explore their natural world and continue to learn throughout their lives to make informed decisions, supported by evidence so that all people live in a sustainable, free and peaceful world.”

Learn more

“Science Education through Multiple Literacies” can be purchased online. The related ML-PBL curriculum is available for free to educators. You can download the materials and learn more about professional learning on the Sprocket website.

Featured photo courtesy of MSU Communications.