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Solving Problems and Making Connections

How Project-Based and Experiential Learning Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

By Laura Boycourt

Project-based and experiential learning are gaining momentum as popular and effective teaching methods. To learn more about both, we spoke with several local teachers (and one student) who break down why “PBL” and “EL” (as they’re known within education) are claiming their places as go-to approaches to learning. 

Project-based Learning (PBL) VS. Experiential Learning (EL)

In PBL, students investigate a topic, typically a real-world problem, and create a product and/or a solution by the project’s conclusion.

Alex Koch, Program Coordinator and Social Studies teacher at Oneness-Family Montessori High School in Kensington, MD says that in PBL, teachers work with students to optimize the investigation process.   “In this method (PBL), students are provided with the time, space, and teacher support to investigate the world around them through the lens of focused topics, letting them chart their own personal and intellectual course along the way.”

There are quite a few steps and some serious work between identifying a problem and developing a solution, says Melissa Major, Global Studies teacher at Bodkin Elementary School. After they refine their questions and consult with experts, “students fine tune a prototype or create an authentic product based on testing,” she explains. “Using checklists and self-created rubrics, students can measure their success. They share what they have created with a greater real-world audience. Finally, they reflect on their learning and discuss possible next steps.” 

Experiential learning connects students with the world and allows them to establish a personal engagement with the topic they’re exploring. EL is often thought of as “learning by doing.” Koch says EL allows students to deeply understand a topic and absorb the information in a big way. 

“Experiential learning focuses on a student’s engagement with the outside world and the resulting experience as the primary tools of deepening their understanding of a topic,” he says. “Because the student’s entire being is occupied in this style of learning (including their intellect, physical body, and consciousness), connections made through experiential learning are often longer-lasting and more durable in comparison to more singular modes of learning, such as a simple text.” 

While PBL and EL have their differences, both approaches position the student at the heart of the educational experience.

“Project-based learning and experiential learning are related to each other in that they both place the student’s lived and felt reality at the center of the learning process,” explains Koch.

The PBL and EL Edge

Koch says that when students have learned via PBL and EL, “they more automatically see and feel their connection to the topic at hand, as the primary lens of investigation (and starting point for learning) is their own interests, perspective, and abilities.”

When it comes to PBL specifically, there’s just a thrill in learning, Major says. “PBL means that school becomes a place filled with excitement. The world is infinitely more interesting when we have the right approach. It’s where kids can think, question, create, struggle, collaborate, invent, and reflect.” 

When it comes to project-based learning, Major says this approach can include testing out seemingly wild ideas, using critical thinking, and knowing that they can be brave in their exploration thanks to teachers who have helped design the experience.  

“PBL allows us to move beyond rote memorization to become skilled in asking the right questions, considering the wisdom of others, and developing effective processes for ourselves.,” she says. “Students not only master standards, they walk away with their heads held high knowing they are capable of producing work that matters to the world.”

The Approaches in Action

In Koch’s experience at Oneness-Family, he’s seen quite a few compelling iterations of PBL and EL. Case in point, the “Changemaker” project, for which juniors and seniors select a “personally meaningful contribution to make in their community and design a project to deliver that change,” explains Koch. From considering historical and contemporary factors to partnering with organizations in the community, Koch says the year-long project allows students to positively and personally impact their community. The school also dedicates a week each semester to leaving campus and participating in field experiences that “are often connected to personal projects that each student is working on, or a fundamental skill that informs a unit of study, such as shore mapping techniques in Environmental Science,” says Koch.

At Bodkin Elementary, Major’s “Harnessing the Wind” project finds third graders exploring the work of experts and applying their own critical thinking to determine how wind power can change lives. During the experience, students work in teams to develop a wind turbine prototype. By the project’s end, “students will be able to clearly communicate how an invention, such as a wind turbine, can be used to solve a local or global problem,” as Major describes it. 

Bodkin 4th Grader Kira Shehane recalls with fondness a project she completed (virtually) as a third grader last school year. “We published a mini-comic about a shark who solves a real problem in the ocean and saves the day,” she explains. For Kira, using her creativity to develop a solution to a real-life issue was a worthwhile experience. “I enjoyed using my imagination to create a world where the sharks are the heroes,” she says. “It made me feel like I was a part of saving the ocean. I got to learn about humankind’s relationship with sharks and research to form my own opinion.”

While both Koch and Major say successful PBL and EL endeavors can be challenging in that they both require significant planning, support, and flexibility on the part of a dedicated teaching staff, the fruits of that labor are incredibly rewarding, especially when it comes to knowing that these experiences are equipping students with critical thinking skills and valuable personal experiences. 

For Major, it’s all about providing students with an exciting learning opportunity that can make a real difference. “Every child deserves the thrill of learning something new, the satisfaction that comes from working on a challenge, and the intrinsic motivation that comes from posing an intriguing question.”

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