Online Collaboration Brings PBL to Life

A science teacher collaborates with her math and ELA colleagues to transform project-based learning from a chore to an adventure.

I never like to teach the same lesson twice. For my students' sake and my own, I like to keep things fresh. I organically took on project-based learning when I read about how it was seen the new, innovative way to get students engaged.

While I was excited to get my students on board with science projects, I found that I would eventually dread the lengthy process. I tried incorporating organization techniques like color-coded folders to keep students on track, but students often lost or forgot about their resources. By the time students gathered resources and were fully ready for the implementation phase, they only had a sliver of time before their project was due. It just didn't seem like an instructive use of time, or an effective way to see that students understood a concept.

That all changed when the process became digitized. Project Pals, a collaboration platform for project-based learning, streamlined the group-project philosophy. All I have to do is create a new project in the platform and incorporate the key details and resources my students will use from the start. From there, my students see the platform and understand the technology instantaneously. They group up and get started. Since the basis is laid out for them in the platform, I can approach students and ask them more critical questions to get them thinking deeply on their subject.

Freeing Teachers and Students to Be Creative

Digitizing the process opened the door for me to get creative. I was teaching my students about the chemistry it takes for atoms to pair up. Our science team came up with the idea to illustrate the concept by connecting the process to online dating. I took the idea and digitized the project. Students evaluated the characteristics of different atoms and matched them up with their ideal partner accordingly. Using the platform, students are able to easily create and manage projects they want to do well at, and teachers have an entire catalogue of previously used projects at their disposal.

Collaborating Across Subjects

Not only are teachers able to get their students engaged in their own subject, we can now collaborate on projects that provide a cross-curricular, well rounded understanding. I was teaching my students about nuclear energy, and though it's a science concept, it requires math and graphs to really understand. Together, my math teacher colleague and I taught students about how Georgia gets its power and why. Then, after they gained an understanding of the what and why, we brought in our ELA teacher to spark a discussion among students about if there should be more or fewer nuclear power plants. Though it was one project, each teacher was able to track students' progress and grade their own portion. Here's a video that explains more of Haralson County Middle School's experience.

When I taught language arts, I was teaching my students about narrative writing and research. They were learning about the solar system in their science class, and about graphing in the four quadrants in their math class. We three teachers decided to collaborate. My students researched the myth behind a constellation and wrote a narrative about it. Then we created the coordinates that would form the constellation. We taped together graph paper to the backs of the black bulletin board paper and students graphed out their constellations. Then we used screwdrivers to punch through the paper. At the presentation, we cleared out the room, unrolled sleeping bags, and hung black paper over the lights so that our constellations twinkled through. Students laid on their backs, pointed out their constellations, and told the stories of how the bears, scorpions, and Greek heroes made it into the night sky.

Cross-curricular projects stand out in students' minds and create a platform from which we can launch new learning. Projects tie students to real-life applications and levels the playing field for students who may not have the same experiences and background knowledge as others. In a rural area with a high poverty rate where we qualify for grants giving free/reduced lunch to all students, this is critical to engage students. When I walk around to individual students' desks, I can make the abstract more concrete when I can tie it to an experience.

Digitizing and simplifying the strategizing phase of a project allows students to focus more on the implementation phase. They can dig deeper and get a more enriched understanding of a concept. An online platform offers teachers a way to supply students the resources, requirements, and deadlines they need in a place where they can't lose it. I can track students' progress on projects and monitor which students contribute the most or least to the group. Students can see how far they are on a project by the progress bar in the platform, and it boosts their motivation to get to the finish line. 

About the Author

Maegan Rutherford is an eighth-grade science teacher at Haralson County Middle School.