Designing Real World Project-Based Learning

The educational program will be built around the real world learning of high-interest, community-based projects in the career clusters.

Effective Design: Practitioner and scholarly research conducted over the last twenty years points clearly to the chief components of an effective project-based curriculum. A good example of this consensus is the “Six A’s” as developed by Adria Steinberg, author of Real Learning, Real Work (1996). Focused on the connections between classroom learning and future work, this metric is particularly appropriate to the SWNP focus on the integration of education reform and economic development.

In brief, this metric requires project-based curriculum to be:
  • Authentic,
  • Academically rigorous,
  • Centered on applied learning,
  • Active exploration,
  • And enriched with appropriate, domain-specific adult connections,
  • Measured through authentic assessment practices.

This metric also provides an understandable rubric for teachers to use as they adopt the curriculum and seek ways to generate their own customizations and extended units.

The curriculum will be developed in several stages.

Project Development: The first stage, Project Development, is designed to generate major high-interest, community-based projects to be implemented by each career cluster. This phase will be guided by the following questions:
  • What are topics of interest or concern to students?
  • What might be high interest products or experiences for students?
  • What will the final, culminating products be?
  • What are the real world connections for the project? Is it authentic or contrived?
  • How will students get input into the project design and selection and be involved in decision-making?
  • Who is the real world audience for the project?

A major component of Project Development will be contextualizing the learning. Many teachers aren’t used to connecting what they teach to the students’ lives, or the real world – even when we recognize that it does! Teachers may need ideas on how to make these connections. Simkins and his colleagues (2002, pp. 35-42) suggest that there are at least 10 kinds of real world connections:

Connecting Through Project Topics
  1. Connecting through student interests
  2. Connecting through student experiences
  3. Connecting through significant issues

Connecting Through Interaction
  1. Improving the real world
  2. Relating to clients
  3. Interacting with assessors
  4. Interacting with people who know

Connecting to the Future
  1. Learning adult work and life skills
  2. Creating a body of work
  3. Creating images of the future

Projects will be further contextualized by being customized to the local community. SWNP leadership will proceed by collecting and analyzing a series of documents that address the following issues for the area surrounding the SWNP educational program:
  • Social / demographic statistics and trends
  • Educational attainment measures by year and recent trends
  • District documents focused on District objectives and strategies
  • Economic development needs and assets (per organizations such as the Chamber, the Economic Development Board, the Workforce Board, etc.)
  • Industry-specific documents in career clusters aligned with local job and career prospects

In addition, focus groups will be held with various District, community and business stakeholders to ascertain willingness and to detail specific opportunities for youth either beyond the day-to-day scope of the curriculum or integrated within it through project-based learning activities.

Certain follow-up conversations will be held in person and by phone with surrounding businesses and organizations with those for whom immediate and substantial involvement is likely.

As this research is completed, SWNP leadership will be able to detail some of the available and appropriate connections with local organizations, federal agencies, and businesses. Further, curriculum frameworks and content can be produced in alignment with local project opportunities and workforce and economic interests particular to the career clusters (themes) selected for implementation. In addition, the research will provide teachers a database of willing and interested local organizations and the resources they can tap as they plan and execute their projects. Importantly, this provides teachers an inspirational sense of reality and capacity as they embarking on a major reform endeavor.

A further aim is to better ensure that the curriculum content and standards are in alignment with the real-world that surrounds the school building itself so students—during the summers and after graduation—will find their learning pertinent to local job and career prospects.

The Project Development phase culminates in a general framework of the various projects for each career cluster, outlining a timeframe for the completion of major projects and general activities. This requires two to three months of work and will build on a national network of contacts and the input of practicing professionals.

Resources related to Project-based Learning