Project-based Learning vs Problem-based Learning in Science

ALI Staff | Published  May 10, 2023

Crafting a science curriculum that engages students isn’t always easy.

While there are plenty of examples of instructional strategies out there, when focusing on a discipline that lends itself easily to hands-on learning, you may want to consider a project-based learning approach.

Project-based learning ideas extend beyond that one-off activity, transforming your science classroom into one that centers on collaborative learning. It also creates a way to see how science fits into everyday life.

While it may require a curriculum change to really infuse a science class with project-based learning, the benefits may make it worth it.


Solar house and windmill project


Project-based learning vs problem-based learning in science

While both methods seem like different concepts, the approaches of project-based learning vs. problem-based learning in science are essentially the same. In fact, these two terms are interchangeable.

Both project-based learning and problem-based learning engage students through activities that tie into the real world.

There’s a greater chance that what they do will be personally meaningful to them since you can introduce scenarios applicable to your students’ lives and their communities.

This strategy requires students to analyze and interpret the information they’re given to effectively use it rather than simply memorize methods and facts to go from a single problem to a quick solution.

Using project-BL as a curriculum over problem-BL won't look any different.

Both give students a question, scenario, or even a problem, with real-world context, then let students problem-solve in their own way, using the appropriate concepts to get an answer.


The benefits of project-based learning 

One of the key benefits of project-based learning is the skillset it helps students develop.

Activities within this curriculum require complex thinking and skill-building related to science and general use.

Students also practice collaboration and communication skills while thinking critically and creatively.

They even get to behave like a scientist, investigating and using trial and error to find an answer to the issue in front of them.

Developing the ability to think critically and work within a group are two huge skills built up through project-based learning that will benefit students throughout their educational careers and professional lives.

In class, they may be focused on using these skills to get to the heart of science, but they’ll come into play, without students even realizing it, in every facet of life moving forward.

Giving them these abilities is priceless.


Examples of project-based learning

In most cases, project-based learning activities occur over an extended period of time, anywhere from one week to an entire semester, and incorporate a complex question, problem, or challenge set in a real scenario.

At the end of the working period, students often show off what they’ve learned by making a presentation or demonstration of some kind.

Specifically in science, project-based learning allows you, as the teacher, to incorporate the quintessential component of the subject — show, not tell.

Key examples of project-based learning are more varied than you might think. There may even be projects you’re already assigning that you can adapt to fit this particular format.

What immediately comes to mind is bridge building. This project has been around for decades and is always a big hit with students.

Building a bridge and collaborating on a design to hold the most weight uses physics, engineering, and math. It’s a way to teach physical properties related to strength and mass, but it doesn’t have to start with bridge construction.

The project begins with a question or problem to solve— for example,

How to improve the structure and capabilities of an existing bridge for an increasing population.

Students would research existing bridges and look up how they were made, including data on the weight they can support and the structural techniques that work for accommodating increased weight loads.

If each group evaluates a different bridge, the whole class will begin to get ideas on making their own bridges stand up to the weight test.

They would then work on developing their bridges with teacher-provided material and test their hypotheses through trial and error— inching closer to the goal of an improved bridge model that solves the lesson's problem.

Other examples include researching real environmental issues and presenting plans to make things better:

  • Determining alternative solutions to combat pollution. Teachers can assign air, land, or water pollution to groups and have them devise solutions to slow down or eliminate pollution. Students can create inventions, alternative uses to dispose of trash, more efficient ways to recycle, etc. 

  • Developing ways to keep endangered wildlife and insects protected from extinction. Students can brainstorm ways to provide shelters, propose new legislation, and other creative solutions that could potentially help slow down or even reverse the process of wildlife extinction.

Understanding how profound these issues are, then problem-solving ways to help is a tremendous project that creates a long-term discussion and can lead to those students making positive changes in their own lives and the world.

Projects like this are a catalyst for igniting a passion for topics for students and could even lead to future career choices. 


Choosing a project-based learning curriculum

Project-based learning is different from simply assigning class projects; it requires a curriculum to carry those projects through an extended period of time.

A project-based curriculum is also highly beneficial for teachers who aren’t used to this learning method and may need some guidance as they acclimate. Remember that proper training and professional learning for teachers are essential when using this alternate approach in education.

Essential things to remember about a project-based learning curriculum is that the problem students are solving is the primary way to teach important skills and practical knowledge.

It frames the lesson rather than simply reinforcing what has already been taught, possibly via lectures and worksheets.

Key curriculum components can vary from school to school, but most will embody these characteristics:

  • Focuses on a big-picture issue, question, or challenge that requires research to solve.
  • Requires students to keep asking questions to get the answers they need to complete the project.
  • Uses critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and other essential skills.
  • Allows students to ‘own’ their response — there’s no one way to get it right.
  • Provides space for feedback and revision.
  • Concludes with a presentation in front of a live audience.

These big-picture characteristics are placed within the framework of what students are learning, should already know, or what’s academically appropriate for them to understand.

Consider a curriculum change in science

If you’ve noticed student engagement waning in your science class, it’s time to flip the script.

Using project-based learning keeps students close to the science they need to know but also transforms the learning process into engaging, hands-on, and collaborative.

It helps students contextualize the science while developing skills they’ll use throughout the rest of their lives. It’s learning science and so much more. 


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