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Project-Based Learning Tied to Improved Problem-Solving Skills

Elementary school students in Illinois whose teachers used a project-based-learning curriculum had stronger scores on a math test that measured problem solving than their peers from more-traditional science classes.

That's according to a new report from a research group with MIDA Education Technologies, a consulting group, which studied a group of teachers who were using Defined STEM, an online project-based learning program that describes itself as "a platform that enables teachers to provide application of knowledge to students through the use of project based learning, real world careers and meaningful reading and writing activities." Defined STEM's resources include literacy tasks, videos and performance tasks on topics that range from organic farming to airports. Its "modules" are also tied to the common core's literacy standards.

The researchers examined classes of 2nd graders and 5th graders in a 17,000-students school district in Illinois over the course of the 2015-16 school year. The district, referred to by the pseudonym Grouse Point, was in the process of beginning to use the Next Generation Science Standards, which Illinois adopted in 2014, and which encourage inquiry-based approaches to learning. Some of the classes used the Defined STEM resources to help implement the new science standards, while others used a more traditional science curriculum with no project-based learning. 

In both 2nd and 5fth grades, students who used the project-based-learning program scored better than the control-group students on a post-test designed to gauge students' problem-solving ability. The report hails that as a success for the project-based-learning curriculum. Girls scored better than boys in both grade levels. 

Teachers expressed some frustration in using the program, especially at first. They suggested that they might have liked to see a model of project-based learning before teaching it themselves, and that it would have helped to work with other teachers to plan tasks and group students. They also said that navigating the online resources was time consuming and complicated. Some tasks assumed that students had some background information they didn't necessarily possess. 

But teachers reported that students were engaged with the tasks, and that their ability to work together and to problem-solve improved over the course of the school year.

In many schools that used project-based learning, teachers design their projects from scratch. But there are more resources like Defined STEM, which structure projects for teachers and make ties to academic standards, available to teachers now than ever before. That's led some experts to set standards for what makes high-quality project-based learning—and to caution that it takes a lot of care to get it right. 

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