5 Tips for Developing Engaging PBL Project Ideas

Jun 28, 2021

At its core, Project Based Learning is all about giving authenticity to the work students do, motivating higher engagement, more dynamic skill development, and deeper learning. However, one of the challenges for teachers is coming up with authentic PBL project ideas that also incorporate the academic content of their classes. Luckily, this doesn't have to be difficult. Here are tried-and-true methods to come up with PBL project ideas for a Project Based Learning classroom.

Create a List of Problems

One of the best ways to come up with a project idea for a specific unit of instruction is to first ignore that unit of instruction. It can be easier to brainstorm project ideas when you are not encumbered by the academic standards that have to be covered. Instead, create a big list of problems that exist in your school and/or community that your students could have a role in solving. Be as broad or specific as you want. Consider issues that matter to your students or you think will be relevant to them once they are introduced to this problem. The list might include items like:

  • Neighborhood littering
  • Crowded hallways
  • Homelessness 
  • Old playground equipment
  • Lonely elderly
  • Kids at Children’s Hospital
  • Busy street needing a crosswalk

Once you have this list, you can then begin to consider how to incorporate them into a set of standards or learning unit. 

*As a tip, when choosing a problem for students to solve, consider what they are passionate about AND what you are passionate about. I’ve found the most successful projects to be ones that address problems everyone can be inspired to solve- including the teacher.

Alter Existing Project Ideas to Fit Your Classroom

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are thousands of other educators out there who have led their students through Project Based Learning, and thanks to the internet, many of those ideas are available to anyone who searches for them. Some of the best projects my students have ever completed were ones I altered to fit my classroom. 

I once had a unit on World War II, so while brainstorming PBL project ideas I Googled, “WW2 PBL Project.” I found a blog post where a teacher wrote about her students interviewing veterans and writing their life stories. Inspired by this, I had my students do the same. However, because most of my students have cell phones with videos cameras, we filmed our interviews and turned them into documentaries. At the end of the project, the students showcased their work at a local theater.

It became one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of, and it all started with a Google search. There are some great resources online with project ideas to borrow for your classes. Check out PBLWorks’ Project Resource, this list from the site TeachThought, or the number of project ideas I often share in my blog

Another great place to discover existing project ideas is social media. Post a tweet saying something like, “Has anyone ever done a PBL project about geometric shapes?” or “Have you ever found an engaging way to teach students about invasive species?” On Twitter, you can use hashtags like #PBLCHAT, #ELACHAT, #SSCHAT, or #EDCHAT to widen your reach. It sounds crazy, but asking a bunch of strangers for ideas often works in the education world. Whether it’s in PBL Facebook groups or on Teacher-TikTok, teachers all over the place are willing to share their ideas. 

Identify a Theme Within Your Power Standards

Sometimes your content standards will have thematic elements to them that can help you generate project ideas. A theme is a universal takeaway from a learning unit, something bigger than just the subject of what students are learning. If you can identify a theme at the outset of project planning, you can begin to think about how students will learn that theme. 

For instance, let’s say these were standards you were working with:

Industrialization – Analyze the origins, characteristics and consequences of industrialization across the world by: describing the social and economic impact of industrialization

Increasing global interconnections between societies, through the emergence and spread of ideas, innovations, and commodities 

After analyzing these standards, you could determine that a theme might be, “Industrialization can have a major impact on people and society.” From there, you can begin to brainstorm how students can learn that theme. Ask questions like: Who is being impacted by industrialization right now? Is it happening in our community? Who could my students serve in this project? What can they create to lessen this impact?

Brainstorm With Other Educators

Once you determine a theme or identify a problem for students to solve find a group of people to brainstorm with. Of course you can come up with ideas on your own, but the best creativity often happens during collaboration. Share the problem, theme, and set of standards with teacher friends at a staff meeting or during a planning period, and start throwing ideas at the wall. 

And when I say throw ideas at the wall, I mean literally. Write down every idea, whether it’s crazy or not, on a whiteboard or sticky notes. Forget about what’s possible or reasonable for the constraints of your classroom, and see what people come up with. After a short time, you will start to see a project idea take shape that actually is possible. For instance, I had these industrialization standards to brainstorm with my peers. At one point someone said, “This reminds me of a documentary I saw about how refugees from developing nations often struggle to adapt to our industrialized society when they arrive in America.” 

After some further brainstorming, I ended up planning a project where students created tools and resources for a social work agency that help incoming refugees assimilate to our city. You can learn more about that epic project here, but I will tell you, there is no way I could have come up with that project on my own.

Use Your Network to Find Authentic Partners

For the past10 years I have been leading workshops for teachers on how to plan Project Based Learning projects, and at every single one I ask if anyone knows someone who is connected with their local zoo. At every workshop for 10 years, at least one person raises their hand and shares a connection they have with someone at the zoo. I then make the point that if you want to plan a project that has something to do with animals, and you’re looking for an authentic audience, all you have to do is ask a group of teachers and someone will be able to connect you with the zoo!

The point is, we all have networks. When coming up with PBL project ideas, we need to take advantage of that. Want your students to present to an official in local government? Someone in your circle probably knows someone who your students could create a project for. Would bringing in a pilot enhance a physics unit? I’m guessing you at least know someone who knows a pilot who could work with your class. Reaching out to friends, family, parents, and colleagues asking for help planning for projects is a great way to come up with ideas and up the authenticity in your classroom. 

There isn’t a magic formula for coming up with PBL project ideas.

I wish there was a magical formula for coming up with strong project ideas. You just do this, this, and this and you now have a project that will make learning more authentic and engaging for students. But the truth is, coming up with project ideas is a creative process. It requires thinking outside the box and collaborative with others. Ideation might mean searching online and using your network. However, when you do this, when you approach project design with a creative lens, you will come up with engaging projects. And when that happens, learning will be deeper, rich, and dynamic for your students. 

Want to dive deeper into Project Based Learning? Check out epicPBL.com where I have free resources, videos, my workshop options, and online course. 

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