A Whole Child Approach to College and Career Readiness through Project-Based Learning

On any given day, a visitor to my middle school science classroom would observe a variety of activities. A cursory glance around the room would reveal a board covered in post-it notes of student-generated questions, experiments and projects in various stages of completion, and groups of students working collaboratively, accessing Chromebooks as necessary to facilitate their discussions. If they looked closely, the visitor would also notice the three strands of the Next Generation Science Standards in various places around the room both in writing and in practice. Along with the standards, the visitor would also observe students practicing college and career readiness skills.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducts an annual survey of employers asking them to rank career readiness competencies that they seek in employees. For the past three years, four competencies have consistently been at the top of the list: critical thinking/problem solving, teamwork/collaboration, professionalism/work ethic, and oral/written communications (NACE, 2019). Each of these skills can and should be cultivated within the classroom, but teachers will often have to make a concerted effort to ensure they are included in instruction.  Project-based learning is a great conduit through which to introduce and reinforce these skills in order to ensure students receive a whole-child approach to college and career readiness.

I use the storyline approach, which includes utilizing a naturally occurring science phenomenon for students to investigate, in my classroom. To improve students’ problem-solving skills, I use a phenomenon that can be problematized. For instance, during an engineering unit, students learn about vehicle-wildlife collisions, a real-world problem, and then devise and construct a solution for the problem. This requires them to learn content related to the ecosystems and biology of the wildlife as well as the physics involved in moving vehicles and forces that impact bridges and tunnels.

In order to solve the problem of vehicle-wildlife collisions, students are required to work individually and collaboratively. It is important to remember that collaboration does not happen on its own and that students need to be taught what collaboration sounds like and looks like. Referencing the Common Core Language Arts standards for speaking and listening can be helpful for teachers to integrate collaboration in their classrooms. At the beginning of the year, I carefully scaffold student collaboration using timers, protocols, and sentence starters to help students learn how to work collaboratively. By collaborating to solve problems, students also learn about the importance of professionalism and a strong work ethic.

Closely related to collaboration is the oral and written communication. Teachers can also use the Common Core language arts standards as a guide to what this should look like at their grade level. I regularly ask students to write down their ideas prior to working collaboratively. This provides them with a chance to think through their ideas and gives them something to refer to during group discussions. I also have my students write reflections about their learning, and they work on technical writing as well as giving formal presentations. My students are expected to regularly engage in speaking and writing, so much so that every now and then a student will try to remind me that I teach science, not language arts. I remind them that scientists must be able to communicate effectively, which means that speaking and writing are key aspects of their learning.

As teachers, we all know that students need more than just academic knowledge and skills to be successful in their future occupations, and project-based learning is a great way to teach many of those skills. It is an engaging way for students to develop the skills they need for the workforce, such as organization, communication and collaboration, which are equally as important to success after high school as mastering the academic content.

Jennifer Smith is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches 8th-grade science at Monticello Middle School where she also sponsors the science club, and oversees the STEM lab. Jennifer also teaches middle school language arts and geography online for Illinois Virtual School. She was a 2014-2015 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, the 2016 Illinois Middle School STEM Teacher of the Year, and the 2019 AACT Middle School Chemistry Teacher of the Year. Jennifer holds a BA in elementary education and an MS in education from Eastern Illinois University and an MS in English from Illinois State University.