Project-based Learning can Lead to Real-world Solutions

Stephen DeAngelis

June 21, 2019

Adults often walk a fine line when dealing with teenagers. On one hand, teenagers need to be guided in some areas of their lives. Their knowledge & experience is limited and their minds & emotions are still maturing. On the other hand, teenagers need to be treated with respect and understanding. Their capacity to think deeply and creatively needs to be acknowledged. For those reasons, I’m a big fan of project-based learning. It’s also why I and few colleagues founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — a project-based, problem-solving approach to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education helping schools near where we live demonstrate to students that STEM subjects can be fun and applicable in their lives. We believe learning how to solve everyday problems will help students in every aspect of their lives. Staff members at the Buck Institute for Education notes, “Project Based Learning (PBL) prepares students for academic, personal, and career success, and readies young people to rise to the challenges of their lives and the world they will inherit.”[1] They add, “Students work on a project over an extended period of time — from a week up to a semester — that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge and skills by developing a public product or presentation for a real audience. As a result, students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills in the context of doing an authentic, meaningful project. Project Based Learning unleashes a contagious, creative energy among students and teachers.”


The Benefits of Project-based Learning


One of the primary objectives of the educational system is preparing young people to live successfully once they are on their own. According to Bonnie Lathram (@belathram), Director of Professional Learning at the Global Online Academy, Bob Lenz (@pblbob), Executive Director, PBLWorks, and Tom Vander Ark (@tvanderark), CEO of Getting Smart, project-based learning is an essential part of preparing students for the real world. They predict the work environment of the future (the so-called gig economy) will be project-based. They insist students who are ill-prepared to work as part of a project team will find it difficult to succeed in the workplace. They explain, “Research and our experience leading schools and organizations show us that deeper learning outcomes — like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, problem solving, self-management and persistence and being able to transfer learning to new and different situations — lead to college and career success.”[2] They conclude, “Encouraging and fostering high-quality PBL for students is the work not simply of educators, parents or policymakers. It is for all of us.”


Project-based learning is particularly important in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Scott Meacham, President of i2E Inc., asserts, “Regardless of the state you live in or where your children go to school, STEM skills are the key to career opportunities today and will be exponentially more important over the next five years.”[3] Meacham is confident in that statement, even though pundits predict many, if not most, of the jobs today’s students will fill have not yet been created. We do know, however, the world is getting more technical and STEM skills will be useful regardless of how the future unfolds. Meacham adds, “Have a conversation with virtually any STEM teacher or any student, and they will tell you that the best way to get young people interested in biology, chemistry or computer programming is to give them hands-on learning opportunities that are tied to real world experience — the earlier the better.”


Hands-on experience can make learning more fun; but, more importantly, it helps students develop skills directly translatable to the workplace. E.J. Daigle (@ejdaigle73), Dean of Robotics & Manufacturing at Dunwoody College of Technology, calls this hands-on, project-based approach the “polytechnic” approach. He states, “It’s going to be important, if not critical, for engineering education to help and encourage students go beyond the textbook and syllabus material of their courses of education. Students will benefit greatly from a polytechnic approach to learning that allows them to apply engineering principles in a wide variety of ways. This approach is already particularly relevant in the manufacturing world. The onset of CAD, CAM, CNC, and 3D printing has resulted in a world where parts can rapidly migrate from engineering design to finished product in hours or minutes.”[4]


Solving real-world problems


Students relate better to STEM subjects when they see their applicability in the real-world. The last thing you want students to say is, “I’ll never use this.” Recently, a group of Texas middle school students learned they weren’t too young to help a local distribution center overcome a real-word challenge. Renee Sexton reports, “A group of Texas middle school students solved a problem employees were having at the Brookshire Brothers Distribution Center. … The grocer’s Distribution Center Operations Manager Jay Jelinek never would have guessed that a sixth-grade 3D design class would have the answer to an obstacle he and his team were facing.”[5] The challenge arose when the distribution center switched from a system requiring each employee to carry a handheld computer to a wireless system. The question was where to place repeaters so employees had continuous access to the new wireless system. Not only did the repeaters need to ensure they were within range of bluetooth devices, they had to protect them from potential damage in an industrial environment. A night supervisor named Mannie Flores came up with the initial idea. He designed a cardboard model for a holder that would underneath the handlebar on the distribution center’s pallet jacks. Obviously, a cardboard container wasn’t the best or final answer. Jelinek’s search for a way to produce Flores’ cardboard container continued when a friend showed him a 3D printed plastic nut. Believing 3D printing was the answer, he had his friend introduce him to Stephen Matheny, a sixth-grade math and 3D design teacher at Hudson Middle School. Sexton picks up the story from there:

“Matheny turned the need into a class project for his students. ‘The kids worked on the project for their nine-weeks major project,’ Matheny said. ‘Up until this project, I’ve been very hands-on with helping them every step of the way with their work. This is the first project that I’ve just let them go, and I’ve been very impressed. They’ve actually given me some cool ideas that I would’ve never thought about.’ Using an animation software called Autodesk 3ds Max, the students added and subtracted shapes to produce a variety of designs similar to Flores’s original model. Part of the challenge was to also incorporate honeycomb patterns to minimize the amount of material used and keep production costs down. After working through multiple designs, the class produced a prototype that Jelinek took to his operators to test on one of the transporters. According to Jelinek, the feedback was very positive and the people liked it. With only one slight modification for added stability, the distribution center is moving forward to outfit all of the transporters with the final product.”

This example demonstrates the value of project-based learning as well as the fact when you treat students like adults, they can surprise you with their maturity and creativity.


[1] Staff, “What is PBL?” The Buck Institute for Education PBLWorks.
[2] Bonnie Lathram, Bob Lenz, and Tom Vander Ark, “Preparing Students for a Project-based World, #PROJECTBASED | #DEEPERLEARNING, August 2016.
[3] Scott Meacham, “Scott Meacham: Hands-on experiences help drive STEM education,” Tulsa World, 17 February 2019.
[4] Jeff Kerns, “STEM Education Is About Hands-On Experience,” Machine Design, 7 March 2017.
[5] Renee Sexton, “Students Solve Need For Brookshire Brothers Distribution Center,” The Shelby Report, 17 May 2019.