teacher creating paper chairs from scratch

How to Plan Project-Based Learning Lesson Plans

Rebecca Gray Education

Project-based learning lesson plans are one of the most labor-intensive undertakings for any educator.  It’s tough to create lesson plans that are relevant and achievable. And it’s even tougher when those lessons have to be hands-on, collaborative, and meaningful.  It’s a lot of work to create the lesson, set up a realistic timeline, and lead students to “big ideas” that they can take ownership of.  Meanwhile, you need to make sure you’re sticking to your learning objective, meeting state standards, and convincing your administration that this out-of-the-box teaching style is actually benefiting your students.  Whew!  Deep breaths.

We get it – It’s a lot to juggle.

But you know what?  The data tells us over and over again that project-based learning works.  It’s meaningful.  Nothing prepares a student for solving real-world problems and engaging in critical thinking than hands-on, project-based learning.  When you put them in charge of their own education, it inspires a love of the learning process that is long-lasting and concrete.

Project-Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.

What is Project-Based Learning?

The formal definition of project-based learning, according to PBLWorks is as follows:

“Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.”

In real-people speak:  Project-based learning is a teaching method where learning comes alive for students because they’re learning by doing.

There are four students sitting at desks.  They are smiling and looking excited.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Learning objectives are met with comprehensive projects that kids enjoy.  They are learning, working, and collaborating – but banking all of this incredible knowledge because they’re having fun doing it.  Lessons look less like lessons, and more like social time as peers and classmates work together to meet an end goal.  They feed off of each other’s successes, ask questions, and motivate each other to be better.  They realize what it’s like to be part of a successful team of thinkers and doers.  (Lightbulb! Life skills anyone?)

Project-Based Learning Lesson Plans

Where does project-based learning fit into the curriculum?  The obvious answer here is science and STEM learning.  We all remember science projects, chemistry labs, animal dissections, and solar system models.  But education today is innovative, and light years ahead of what we experienced as students.  Yeah – we used to “do projects” in school. But check this out:

“Doing a project” and “Project-Based Learning” are not the same thing.

Sounds crazy right?  But hear us out:

Doing a project is like putting a one-room addition on a home.  The main lesson you teach acts as the “house”.  This house might look like a lecture.  It’s built with books, worksheets, exams, and homework.  When you open the front door, students are all sitting in neat rows of desks quietly writing, working solo on their own grades in every small room of that house.  They’re cramming knowledge for short-term regurgitation.  When all that boring stuff is out of the way, you let the kids do a fun little project to ‘cap off the main lesson’.  This fun little project is the “addition” to the house.  Let’s call it a “playroom”.

An entire home is being constructed.  The frame, walls and roof are complete.  House-wrap coats the outside and a construction worker leans a ladder against the front of the home.
Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

Project-based learning is a different structure altogether.  Think of PBL as the frame for the WHOLE house. Only this house looks different.  It’s an open floor concept where kids are on their feet talking, discussing, asking questions, and working together in small groups in every room.  They are learning through exploration, creativity, and discovering the answers to driving questions set forth by the home-builder (a.k.a. their teacher).

With PBL, the project IS the learning experience.  It is an entire thematic learning unit.  There may be mini-lessons along the way – but each mini-lesson is meant to help students to make their way through the project itself.  The end-goal is met through the project work itself, instead of the other way around.

The Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Today’s educators know that there is a place for project-based learning lesson plans beyond the walls of the science classroom or the STEM lab.  It can be integrated, where appropriate, into every classroom, regardless of grade levels or subjects.

A preschool-aged student is seated at a table with markers, working on a project.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
  • PBL lets preschoolers learn and play as they adjust to new situations and form opinions about school.

  • PBL exploits the curiosity of elementary-age students during a critical time of growth, and development.  Nurturing their love for learning can help create a positive outlook towards school in general.

  • PBL even pulls middle school students out of their awkward shells and promotes student engagement with interactive learning units that they need to explore together. (Middle-schoolers wouldn’t be caught dead raising their hand to answer an open-ended question in class. You know it.  I know it. Trey Kennedy knows it.)

  • It plunges high school and college students into in-depth inquiry where their subject areas become more meaningful.

It has a place in social studies, math, and language arts.  PBL is actually a custom-made opportunity to combine disciplines – bringing literacy and poetry into a science class for example.  Or using technology resources to pull off some distance collaboration on a political science project in history.  Students, with the guidance and feedback from their teachers, can curate a final project for a PBL Unit that has tapped into multiple disciplines and subject areas.

Project-based learning benefits individual learners as well – by giving them opportunities to apply their strengths.  It allows different learning styles in the classroom to really shine.  Tactile and kinesthetic learners can thrive and contribute in ways they are unable to during traditional lecture-style teaching.

Is Project-Based Learning Effective?

Studies have shown us repeatedly that project-based learning is working.  Project-based learning lesson plans are worth the time-intensive efforts we pour into them.  When purposefully developed and implemented well, PBL has some of the following proven results:

  • Increased (and long-term) retention of content

  • Improved student attitudes toward learning

  • Increased student engagement

  • Increased scores on achievement tests

  • Promoting a deeper understanding of the material

While PBL has a time and place in our classroom, it can be as or more effective than traditional teaching methods.  So when faced with the Shakespearean decision: To PBL? Or not to PBL? Remember – it’s the student-centered approach that’s bringing success to our kids.

A teacher at her desk in front of her computer looks mildly stressed.  There are papers or lists and a phone on the desk.  There is a camera on a tripod in the foreground.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

If the mountainous to-do list seems too intimidating, remind yourself that the results are worth it.  Consider choosing projects that are already developed and attached to a proven curriculum.  There are plenty of free and paid resources at your disposal, including curriculum, projects, planning tools, rubrics, and parent letters.  Check out some of the following:

How to Plan Project-Based Learning

The planning stage feels super-daunting.  It’s exactly what teachers are referring to when they say project-based learning lesson plans are time-intensive.  Don’t go it alone!  Seriously – take time to check out the resources above – and these handy tips below:

1.    Choose a standards-aligned topic that will inspire your students!

Think of 3-4 topics that are age-appropriate and can be aligned with grade-level standards, and/or Next Generation Science Standards.  Have a class discussion with your students.  Inform them that you’ll be beginning a project-based learning unit, and layout your topic possibilities.

A young girl in glasses is smiling as she dips a paintbrush into a container.  There are paint, brushes, and other supplies on the table.
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Have students come to some consensus about what topic interests them most.  Let them decide, make lists of pros and cons, or discuss what they already know about each topic.  Hold a vote – and if it turns out like the November 2020 presidential election, throw in the towel.  Kidding!

Come to a diplomatic decision that lets your students feel a measure of control over their own learning. They are more likely to actively engage in a project that they are genuinely interested in.  You only need a broad topic at this stage.  Don’t worry about sharing all the details with them just yet.  Sharing too many details might make their decision process difficult.

2.    Set Clear Learning Objectives.

Once your students have come to a consensus on the topic they are most passionate about, you need to think hard about what concrete learning objectives you would like to see your students achieve through this project-based learning.  Your students will need an end goal.

Your learning objectives will often hold hands with a driving question.  This is an open-ended question that students will be attempting to answer.  Driving questions often have multiple answers, and are exploratory.  They are developed carefully to guide student’s learning.

3.    How Will You Manage Your Classroom?

You’ll need to decide how your classroom and your students are going to function for the duration of this project-based learning unit.  Will they work as an entire class or in small groups?  Will they work in stations?  Will different groups be expected to interact?  How will students be split into groups?

Two adults appear to be facilitating a group project discussion among four students. There is a poster board covered with colored post-it notes in the center of the table. The teacher is holding up one of the colored notes as he speaks with the students.
Photo by Zainul Yasni on Unsplash

Your students will need some guidelines on time management.  They’ll need a rough idea of what they are supposed to be doing each day, and routines are helpful.  Perhaps the first few minutes of class are a group recap, followed by experimentation and data collection.  Each day may end with a certain amount of time dedicated to returning equipment and materials to their proper places.

Whatever your classroom management style may be, set it in stone before beginning the unit.  Your expectations should be clear, consistent, and communicated to students frequently.

4.    Feedback

Periodic feedback will be necessary so that students aren’t wasting too much time heading in the wrong direction.  Students or groups will arrive at different conclusions and at different times, but several rounds of feedback throughout the project will ensure that groups are all on track to at least meet their learning objectives.

Decide how often you will provide feedback, and with what methods.  Will your feedback be formal or informal?  Are you setting dates for written feedback (formal feedback), or offering verbal feedback during daily monitoring (informal feedback)?

5.    Final Presentation Methods

When the projects are complete, students need to present their products, findings, and conclusions.  You’ll need to decide, and inform students in advance, of what their final presentation will look like.

A classroom of middle-school-aged children listens as someone addresses them from in front of the whiteboard.  Students are seated in desks that are pushed together to form groups.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

How will they present their projects?

Projects can be presented as videos, skits, tables, charts, graphs, speeches, poems, robots, structures, blog posts, etc.  This list of presentation formats is virtually endless.  It can combine presentation methods and can be done individually or as a group.

Who will their audience be?

Will they be presenting their project to a panel of judges, a single teacher, their peers from class, an auditorium full of students, or professionals from the community?

Voice and Choice

Giving students choices about their preferred method of presentations (from a list of options you approve of) is another great way to give them ownership of their own learning.

6.    How Will You Assess Your Student’s Outcomes?

Did your students meet the learning objectives that you set forth at the beginning of your planning stages?  How do you know?  You’ll need to choose measurable outcomes that you can assess.  Some outcomes feel immeasurable, and for that reason, we create rubrics to keep a level of objectivity.  Students must have access to the rubric you will be using before they begin the project.

7.    Make Necessary Adjustments.

Keep an anecdotal log of each phase of the project.  It doesn’t need to be anything fancy or formal.  A half-used notebook will do. Make note of what works and what doesn’t.  You can make adjustments to squeaky wheels (unless those squeaky wheels are cheeky children) for the following year.

PBL isn’t perfected overnight.  You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t through trial and error – just like your students.  Don’t beat yourself up for the things that didn’t work.  We all learn through failure.

The Importance of STEM in The Classroom

Why is project-based learning important anyway?  The answer is:  It’s one of the most effective ways to immerse students in STEM concepts.

So then the real question becomes – Why is STEM important?

STEM learning is more important than ever as the global workforce explodes with job openings that can only be filled by graduates with STEM degrees.  STEM occupations are projected to increase 8% from 2019-2029 – more than double the increase of non-STEM jobs,

Producing digitally literate and STEM confident graduates is an uphill battle.  And it’s a battle that needs to begin in preschool and primary school classrooms.  STEM is the boiler in the factory that’s churning out the world’s critical thinkers and problem solvers.  It’s what pushes technology, medicine, science, and space exploration forward to better our lives every day.

A smiling girl in glasses and a pink top stands behind a clay figure of a skeleton with visible anatomy.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

10 Project Based Learning Examples for Educators

Project-based learning lesson plans can be developed at all grade-levels, and across multiple disciplines.  We’ve curated a list of examples of PBL units, projects, and lesson plans here to illustrate the versatility of this teaching method.  Many topics and age groups can benefit from the in-depth content exploration provided by the PBL format.  Check out the bonus project-based learning idea at the end of this list!  (We might be biased, but we think it’s pretty great.)

1. Shrinking Our Footprint

Subjects: Math/Science
Grade Level Recommendation: 3-6

Source: PBL Works from Buck Institute of Education (BIE)

Driving Question:  How can we use data to reduce our families’ impact on the environment?

Overview:  Students collect data on their families’ usage of things like water, gasoline, garbage, and food waste. They then use this data to create and implement a plan to reduce their family’s carbon footprint.

2.  The Dog Project

Subjects:  Literacy, Art, Math, Social Studies, Science

Grade Level Recommendation: Pre-K – Kindergarten

Source:  Project Approach

Driving Question:  Students form their own initial list of driving questions with this project, and then work to answer their curiosities.

Overview:  Students spend a good portion of their school year investigating dogs through a myriad of activities and projects.  Community connections are made with local veterinary clinics, dog parks, and animal trainers.  Students work in groups to create their own model of a dog park and talk about the purpose of each part of their model.   This is a long-lasting project for such a young age group and can be aligned to many pre-k and kindergarten learning standards.

An empty lot with a city skyline in the background.
Photo by PJ Gal-Szabo on Unsplash

3. Community Assets

Subjects:  Social Studies, engineering, math/measurement

Grade Level Recommendation:  7-12

Source: Edutopia’s 10 Ready-to-Borrow Projects (Project #7)

Driving Question:  How can we, as future city planners, reimagine empty lots as places of importance in our community?
Overview:  Students take an inventory of usable spaces within the community.  They can use the engineering design process to think like innovators and create a new and useful design for spaces that are otherwise offering no benefit to the community.  They can work on deciding how they would convince the city to approve their plans.  This project blends key concepts of community, engineering design process, social studies, and math for a thought provoking project for older students.

4. Google Historical Voyages and Events

Subjects:  Social Studies, English Language Arts, 21st Century Skills

Grade Level Recommendation: 6-12

Source:  Carol LaRow; Google Certified Teacher and Smithsonian Laureate

Driving Question:  What historical event, voltage, explorer or local history would you like to share with other schools?
Overview:  Students choose a rich piece of their local history or heritage and research the event, person, or voyage.  They implement Google earth satellite images to walk the walk those explorers actually walked, and then share their findings with other schools and audiences.  This is a great project to give students a “Voice and Choice” for their presentation methods or topics.  Carol LaRow does a great job of encouraging 21st Century Skills through this project and has great tips and resources for how to use Google tools to enhance research and presentation.

5. The Noon Day Project

Subjects: Science, math/measurement

Grade Level Recommendation: 8-12th Grade

Source:  Ciese

Driving Question:  How can we use the Eratosthenes Experiment to determine the circumference of the earth with the tools in our classroom?

Overview:  Students review a historical math/science marvel in the experiment of Eratosthenes around 240 B.C.E. when he predicted the circumference of the earth with shadows, measurement, and mathematics to within 10% of estimations made with today’s technology.  Students can then use his methods to make the estimate themselves.

A set of hands is holding a movie clapperboard in front of an empty desert scene.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

6. Movie in the Making

Subjects:  Language Arts, Video/Tech, Art, Drama

Grade Level Recommendation:  5-12th Grade

Source:  Ciese

Driving Question:  How can we turn *insert class novel* into a motion picture for *appropriate audience*?

Overview:  Students will read a novel as a class or in small groups, then analyze and discuss the character traits, setting, plot, climax, and other story elements.  Afterward, they will decide how they could cast actors, create sets, and turn their novel into a motion picture.  This project can be taken as far as actually creating the motion picture by working with the drama department.  They could make movie posters to advertise their movie with graphic design software, or their own two hands.

7. Kid 2 Kid Puerto Rico Solar Oven

Subjects:  Social Studies, Science, Social Studies, Physics, Video/tech, Drama

Grade Level Recommendation:  Grade 7

Source:  Take Action Science
Driving Question:  How can an average family without power in Puerto Rico make an effective solar oven out of household items?

Overview:  This project-based learning lesson plan was developed out of an obvious need during a long power outage observed in Puerto Rico.  Sue Boudreau and her colleagues outline the project on her Take Action Science blog.  The students were challenged to make a solar oven that could effectively be used by families in need in Puerto Rico to prepare food for their tables.  Students then had to create “how-to” videos, explaining the build process step by step.

8. Finding Dory: Saving the Coral Reefs Through Captive Breeding

Subjects:  Science, Biology, Social Studies, Humanities

Grade Level Recommendation: Grade 12

Source:  High Tech High

Driving Question:  How can scientists find creative ways to protect coral reef systems?

OR In what ways is science a humanitarian endeavor?

Overview:  Students conduct a study of the coral reef systems in the oceans, and learn about the ecosystems supported on the coral reefs.  They dive into the “ornamental fish” trade and how overfishing ornamental saltwater fish for pet stores causes a domino effect that can kill entire coral reef systems.  Students decide how scientists can possibly breed fish in captivity to avoid fishing from their natural habitats.  High Tech High outlines this in-depth five-month project-based learning lesson plan in great detail.

A homeless individual sleeps on a sidewalk with a box and empty cups.
Image by Apollo22 from Pixabay

9. Homelessness in America

Subject:  Social Studies, Humanities, Communications

Grade Level Recommendation:  11

Source:  High Tech High

Driving Question:  How can we end homelessness in America?
OR  What is the face of homelessness in America?

Overview:  Students learn about the issues surrounding homelessness, homeless rates, and programs for the homeless in their local community.  This seven-week project includes a fundraiser for homeless programming, as well as community connections.  This is a humbling project-based learning lesson plan for students that can be both informative and character building.

10. Climate Change

Subjects:  Science, History, 21st Century Leadership Skills,

Grade Level Recommendation:  Grade 10-12

Source:  Envision Projects

Driving Question:  How does global warming affect industrialization today?

Overview:  Students explore the concept of climate change and global warming.  They then take a look at industrialization and manufacturing practices, and how environmental regulations are affecting industrialization in the world around us.  This 5-week project-based learning lesson plan is incredibly in-depth and well organized.

Three students open a Thimble project box and examine the electronic components while smiling and looking surprised.

Bonus Project:

Subjects:  Science, Engineering, Math, Robotics, Coding, Video/Technology

Grade Level Recommendation: 6-12th grade

Source: Thimble.io

Driving Question:  How can a middle school student use electronics components and coding to build a useful item like a doorbell, nightlight, or thermometer?

Overview:  Students learn to use basic sensors, actuators, indicators, and coding with Arduino to create a plethora of useful and interesting projects.  They can learn about basic circuits and electricity, as well as coding.  Thimble’s education experts have created a dynamic curriculum. Thimble even offers live classes that allow you to be the facilitator of student achievement, actively engaging, helping, and observing while Thimble’s experts lead your class in meaningful STEM learning.

Project-Based Learning Lesson Plans Can Be Your Next Classroom Success

Now that you know the ins and outs of project-based learning, we hope it doesn’t feel so impossible.  Many educators have successfully implemented PBL in their classrooms with incredible success, and you can too!  Shake off the fear, use our resources, and get planning.  If you’re still nervous about how you’ll manage this type of teaching method, start with a ready-made project-based learning unit designed by Thimble!  We promise your students, parents, and administration will sit up and take note of the successful buzz from your classroom!