Making a Case for Project-based Learning

STEM is now the hot topic in science education around the world! Why is that? How can this change in the focus of science education possibly prepare our students for their economic independence? STEM proponents advise that our students’ economic independence will come from the choices they make while in school concerning what they will be prepared to do post graduation. Will they be college or career ready? Will they be ready to compete in the global workplace that has emerged since 2000, when the “world became flat”?

Thomas Friedman in his 2005 speech at Notre Dame, about his book, The World is Flat, had an insightful look at globalization and outsourcing. His findings that the “global economic playing field is being leveled” were part of his talk which is available on YouTube at

The point of his book and speech is that while we, as a nation, were sleeping, globalization changed from being built around nations to being built around individuals. Individuals are now competing economically and independently against other individuals on a global level, rather than the economies of nations competing against the economies of other nations around the world.

With the advent of the Internet, the personal computer, and fiber optic cables, our economic content knowledge is now available to the world in digital form. As a tool for connectivity, the Internet gives the world access to our knowledge base and the ability for individuals to collaborate, outsource, and innovate within the workflow and information synthesis that used to be the exclusive business of companies in the US.

On this digital platform, Freidman states that, “whatever can be done, will be done” by us, for us, or to us. The new digital platform makes three billion more workers in countries such as Russia, China, and India, available to impact the economics of our workforce in the US; with the workflow going to the most available and adaptive workers in the world. The only workers who will not be impacted by this world-wide digital platform are going to be those whose jobs cannot be outsourced, digitalized, or automated, or those whose work is specialized and anchored to specific locations, such as doctors, carpenters, or nannies.

The hope for the future economics of the individuals in our classrooms lies in their abilities to adapt to being “in the middle.” The middle is between the creators of the information and the users of the information. Economically successful individuals in the middle, include those who take the benefits of the digital platform and adapt them locally to meet local needs. Another successful middle-level opportunity is to synthesize the benefits of the digital platform into something that is needed by a majority of consumers. According to Friedman, to do this as a synthesizer, the students in our classrooms must be able to take a generic, “vanilla task” and put a passionate-personalized twist on it, and be able to sell it and market it.

The importance of this perspective for STEM education is using the science classroom for teaching the skills and capacity for adapting. These skills of adaptability are needed to be able to create, communicate, synthesize, and learn how to learn from what is already available on the digital platform. That is where STEM education becomes the key. STEM is the synthesis of technology, science, and the worldwide digital platform to engineer and design the solutions to local and consumer issues.

Within the instructional strategies associated with STEM education is Project-based Learning (PBL). PBL develops and uses the ability to identify local concerns and problems, including criteria and constraints, and couple them with what is already known and available. Then to synthesize and innovate for a solution that has both personal and global impact. It is important for students to show how their solution has a beneficial impact that is social, economic, and local as well as meets the criteria and stays within the constraints.

The use of PBL in the STEM classroom is the authentic synthesis of “being in the middle” that is suggested by Freidman. Providing scenarios for your science students that are authentic, age appropriate, and complex require solutions that are creative, personalized, autonomous and sophisticated. Bringing to your classroom the ambiguous yet intriguing nature of the problems of our communities that do not come with instructions books or technical guides; but do have criteria and constraints that are based in the real world, is the start.

To encourage growth in the skills of solving problems, researching, and innovating requires scaffolding to be in place to move students from guided practice to independence. Rubrics provide scaffolded assistance that moves each student from novice to proficient, and then to expert. The use of rubrics guide students through the many failures that are part of the innovation process and provide the milestones that mark the path from being novice to expert as they adapt their current knowledge and skills to those needed in “the middle.”

In summary, Freidman stated, that for our students today, the formula “CQ + PQ > IQ” will be the answer to their preparation for the future. The formula stands for your students’ Curiosity Quotient + Passionate Quotient being greater than their Intelligent Quotient. He stated that, those things developed by the left side of the brain, which is the focus for current education, would be outsourced. The things generated by the right side of the brain, which are currently not in traditional education, such as innovation, collaboration, and synthesis of ideas, will be the creativity that generates the passion and curiosity as the keys to independent economic success in the flat global economy of their future.

I would like to invite you to visit and look through our resources about Project-based Learning to learn how to integrate PBL into your classroom for the benefit of your students. The PBL videos and resources provide ideas you might want to try in promoting your own skills and those of your students.

Have you had similar experiences bringing new strategies into the science classroom? Share your strategies for preparing a student-centered learning environment with us. Share your ideas and stories by leaving comment on this month’s blog! I hope Talley’s Take becomes a place where you can share your thoughts about being a STEM teacher, and a place where you can interact with and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields. I look forward to your comments!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!



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