Create a List

List Name

Rename this List
Save to
Back to the Top Teaching Blog
December 4, 2013 Hand Over the Reins: Student-Driven Projects By Lindsey Petlak
Grades 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    I’ve been a fan of project/problem-based learning (PBL) for years. Sometimes such an approach may seem laborious and drawn out, but one of my recent classroom adventures proved PBL can be amazingly engaging and effective without being overwhelming. Am I a PBL expert? Absolutely not. Do I strive to implement PBL (or elements thereof) in my classroom to the best of my ability whenever possible? Absolutely! Try it and see how it changes your classroom experiences.

    What is PBL?

    According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), “In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student 'voice and choice,' rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st century skills (such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations.”

    What Are Key Elements of PBL?

    The BIE indicates that effective PBL:

    • is intended to teach significant content

    • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication

    • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new

    • is organized around an open-ended driving question

    • creates a need to know essential content and skills

    • allows some degree of student voice and choice

    • includes processes for revision and reflection

    • involves a public audience

    Want to learn more? 

    Below are my top recommendations for inspiring articles, blog posts, videos, and free resources on PBL.

    Our District Challenge

    During our November Teacher Institute Day, our district delivered some exciting news: Two classrooms from every school will have the opportunity to win Google Chromebooks for their students, teachers will become a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) Qualified Individual, and students will receive Google Ninja training.

    Project Ninja: Google Chromebook Challenge

    Upon hearing this, my eyes lit up like fireworks . . . and my wheels began turning. Applying for this amazing opportunity required only that we complete a Google form application. That was not enough, in my opinion. These Chromebooks would be the students’ — not mine. I asked myself, “What would GOOGLE do?”

    Would they fill out an online application telling why they want/need the Chromebooks, or would they turn over the reins to the students and show what the power of such tech tools could do for their learning? And so, the Project Ninja Google Chromebook Challenge was born! We had ONE DAY to show our class was the best candidate for the Chromebooks.  See the process behind our final products below!





    STEM Integration

    In our classroom, we integrate the Engineering/STEM design process into nearly everything we do. This was no different for our Project Ninja challenge. Using the engineering design process as a planning framework, our students drove the course of this project.

    • ASK: Students were asked what tech problems we currently faced and to take the Chromebook challenge.

    • IMAGINE: Our class began imagining ways that Google Chromebooks could solve these problems.

    • PLAN: In randomly assigned groups, students planned out materials, project details, and more.

    • CREATE: Students created projects to demonstrate how we would benefit from winning the Chromebook challenge.

    • IMPROVE:  We brainstormed ways the Chromebooks would improve our learning as well as how we could improve our projects throughout the process.

    Engineering Design Process poster from STEM Engineering Starter Kit for Teachers by Ivy Taul


    Key Elements

    In addition to setting the foundation for our project by using the engineering/STEM design process, other key elements helped make this 21st century learning experience a success.

    • Google Commercial Inspiration: To aid in imagining, planning, and creating our projects, we used existing and inspiring Google Chromebook commercials to get our wheels turning.

    • Live Webchat Brainstorm: Students answered questions posted in the chat box on our website as a group and shared with the rest of the class. We all learned from sharing which inspirational commercials groups found most useful, as well as the ways they feel we use technology daily in class and at home for learning.

    • Class Problem-Solving Brainstorm: Our class uses technology NON-STOP at school and home. We feel very fortunate to have the technology that we do, but there are still problems that need solved in order for us to be proper Tech Ninjas. In our class we "make it work," but having individual Chromebooks dedicated to each student would solve many problems and open a new world of tech possibilities for us!

    • Google Form Application: After using our engineering design process planning pages, students typed their final application on a class Google form. Groups included information about their projects, character traits of our class that make us great candidates, and more.

    • Chromebook Challenge Student Projects:  Students worked in groups to create interactive projects demonstrating their answers to the Google Form applications they completed. Projects included Prezi, slideshows, Google Presentations, video interviews, posters, and more! Check them out for yourself!



    How Did I (as a teacher) Document this Process?

    Project Ninja Trailer:  Using iMovie to make a trailer, I showed a brief snapshot of our challenge setup and process. This was great to include in my application as a way to get the district judges interested in our “out-of-the-Google-form-box” application and drive them from the application submitted to our special webpage fully documenting our Project Ninja process.

    Project Ninja Music Video/Commerical: To fully document the engineering process students used to create their projects, showcase the finished projects, and explain rationale, I created my own version of a Chromebook commercial. It was amazing to see how much work students put into their projects, and how they drove the entire process. This commercial truly demonstrated that showing/seeing something is far more impactful than simply telling about it.

    Visit the Project Ninja page on our Classroom Website to see the entire Project Ninja process and our final products!


    Will We Win the District Chromebook Challenge? 

    Who knows? Of course, it would be wonderful for our class in numerous ways, but what’s most important to me is the amazing effort, creativity, cooperation, collaboration, and brilliant final projects driven by the students of our class. They put their hearts and souls into this one day project and are very proud of their results. 

    In the end, that’s what truly matters and winning the Chromebooks would be icing on the cake . . . fingers crossed!

    What's a PBL experiences (either long-term and planned out or impromptu like our Chromebook challenge) have been successful for you? Please share!


Share your ideas about this article

My Scholastic

Susan Cheyney