What is the role of PBL in the STEM revolution?


With the STEM revolution sweeping both primary and secondary classrooms, it is extremely important to understand which pedagogy is appropriate for the successful implementation to the STEM curriculum.

Lets get aligned – STEM is the content

Sometimes it is easy to caught up in the hype around STEM, with the 3D printers, robots, laser cutters and other gadgets.  Consequently, we may forget that STEM is just the integration of four areas of curriculum around a common context. It is an opportunity for classrooms to move away the segregation, towards integration. Where this gets tricky is that instructional methods especially in engineering, mathematics and science have traditionally been taught in a teacher-centered approach (Krishnan, Gabb, & Vale, 2011). However, it is important to understand that STEM is not the approach to teaching and the employment of more student-centred approaches to teaching are needed if the true benefits of STEM are to be realised.


What exactly is Project-Based Learning?

Project-Based Learning is a student-centred pedagogy that presents students with an authentic challenge that generates sustained inquiry over a duration of time from approximately 3 – 10 weeks. We approach this inquiry from the premise that project-based learning requires a well-defined outcome, with ill-defined tasks (Capraro, Capraro, & Morgan, 2013; Markham, 2003).

The essential elements of Project-Based Learning is a focus on soft skill development such as teamwork and communication skills. Also a public product is extremely important as a culminating event. Students must see a connection between the content and the product. Below is a snapshot of the “In the Shadows of Shoah Project” by Kurt Challinor and Maddison Cleveringa, which was voted in the top 15 BIE Projects for 2016 by John Larmer. This project is a great example of an meaningful public product (Museum Exhibit) that is closely linked to the content studied (World War 2 and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas).

Similar, to managing a project in engineering, the content to be studied must be driven by the needs of the product. For example, if the challenge is to create an aeroplane, then the content should involve material science, Bernoulli’s principle, speed, acceleration and surface area. If this content is not part of your STEM curriculum then the plane project may be engaging, but not appropriate!

A snapshot of  a STEM Project

In order to understand why Project-Based Learning is essential to the success of your STEM curriculum it is important to gain an understanding of a PBL driven STEM project.

The area of focus for this project was aerodynamics and was designed for Year 9 students in a STEM elective. The driving question/challenge was How could a drone be used to save human life in a natural disaster?

Below are the key content areas and aspects that were studied:

What do the students need to know?

  • describe the evolution of flight technologies.
  • explain aerodynamic principles.
  • describe a range of technologies used in aerodynamics
  • describe the effects of lift, drag, weight and thrust.
  • explain the use of forces and scientific principles in flight.
  • explain the mathematical methods behind velocity and acceleration.
  • describe a range of technologies used in CAD and CAM processes.


What do the students need to do?

  • perform experiments using a range of aerodynamic technologies to solve engineering problems.
  • calculate lift/drag ratios
  • apply mathematical and graphical methods to solve aerodynamic related problems.
  • apply mathematical methods to solve motion related problems involving velocity and acceleration.
  • construct models for the purpose of solving aerodynamic problems
  • use a variety of technologies which assist in the rapid prototyping process


The following phases were utilised within the project:

Phase 1 – Exploring the Content and prototyping

Students were required to investigate the different types of disasters and how a drone could be used to save human life. Furthermore, they had to research the different designs, components and materials technology required for construction. Each group designed a prototype and it was cut-out in cardboard using the laser cutter.


The drone prototypes were assembled to ensure all components fitted accurately and the final design was appropriate.


Phase 2 – Building the drone

Students then used their selected materials to construct their drones. Materials ranged from plywood to different types of perspex and plastics. All components were added and tested to see that they were in working order. Finally, other components such as cameras, GPS and package dropping mechanisms were added.




Phase 3 – Testing

Students were then given the opportunity to present publicly how their drone could be used to save human life in a natural disaster. Students were marked individually and as a group throughout the project through various formative and summative assessments according to a rubric.


Students demonstrated a deep understanding of the different STEM curriculum areas. Furthermore, they developed an appreciation for problem solving and the need for iterations of design in the problem solving process.


Final thoughts

Please understand that Project-Based Learning is only one example of a student-centred pedagogy. There are many others that can be utilised to help the teaching of STEM integrations in order to move away from more traditional teacher-centred approaches. Finally, before implementing any STEM initiative answer the following questions in chronological order:

  1. What student-centered pedagogy will you utilise?
  2. How will you assess soft skills?
  3. What resources will be available for this initiative?



  • Capraro, R. M., Capraro, M.M.,
    & Morgan, J. R. (2013). STEM project-based learning: An integrated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) approach (2nd ed.). Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense.

  • Krishnan, S., Gabb, R., & Vale, C. (2011). Learning cultures of problem-based learning teams. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 17(2), 67–78.
  • Markham, T. (2003). Project based learning handbook: A guide to standards-focused project-based learning for middle and high school teachers. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.

  • Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2015, April 21). Gold Standard PBL: Essential project design elements [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://bie.org/blog/gold_ standard_pbl_essential_project_ design_element.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s