Using Project-Based Learning to Bring All Content Areas to Life

“Why do we have to learn this?” It’s a question I hear when students do not understand content or how it connects to their lives. It is a question that was regularly repeated by my classmates in our high school math class. It’s a question that exasperated the teacher and has since been profitable for poster companies who have identified those exact moments in life when knowing the Pythagorean Theorem will come in handy.

While my classmates would ask the question to be funny, in too many classrooms it is a legitimate question. As teachers, we know that students are more engaged in learning if they are interested in the topic and if they are able to see a direct connection to their lives. If a student asks the question in my science classroom, I know that I need to find a way to make the content more relevant, so I use project-based learning.

Project-based learning is a fantastic way to help students understand science concepts, but I have found that it also serves as a great way to help students learn a variety of other high-level skills as well. Thinking back to my high school years, math was the class where I most frequently heard, “Why do we have to learn this?” Integrating standards-based math concepts into my science curriculum as frequently as possible is one way that I can help students better understand the real-world applications of math. My state’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards has helped to facilitate the integration of math standards within the science classroom because Common Core math standards are included with their correlating science standards.

In my classroom this means that I first look to my science standards and then find math standards that are also associated with the concepts. Being familiar with the math standards for my grade level is valuable, so I can find additional connections and learning opportunities in the lesson. Using both sets of standards, I design a project for my students which helps them understand why the content is important for the “real world” and helps them practice and master the standards. Most recently I was able to reinforce ratios and proportional relationships as my students examined the percentage of solvent to solute necessary to generate the greatest amount of heat for incubator prototypes they had engineered. Students also created and analyzed graphs of their data, which required mathematical reasoning.

Science classrooms provide teachers with exceptional opportunities to avoid the question, “why do we have to learn this?” by enabling students to learn in a hands-on environment. Teachers who incorporate learning in multiple content areas into their classrooms through project-based learning help students see how new content and concepts can impact their current lives and can benefit them in the future.

Jennifer Smith is a National Board-Certified Teacher and currently teaches 8th-grade science at Monticello Middle School where she also sponsors the science club and oversees the STEM lab. She also teaches middle school language arts and geography online for Illinois Virtual School. Jennifer holds a BA in Elementary Education and an MS in Education from Eastern Illinois University as well as an MS in English from Illinois State University. 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.