Reflections on a Problem-Based Learning Experience

Recently, I collaborated with another math teacher in my grade to develop a problem-based unit for our students to investigate volume and surface area of polygonal prisms and cylinders.  We presented our students with this task: you own a company that has makes packaging materials to be sold in stores, and decide to bid on a project for a new company that makes edible play-doh.  Design at least 3 different containers that would hold around 150 cubic centimeters of play-doh.

We gave our students a few stipulations for their project:

  • They needed to design a rectangular prism, a cylinder, and a polygonal prism (where the base was not a rectangle).
  • When designing their prototypes, they were to take into consideration the design factors of visual appearance, cost (with a given price per cubic centimeter), and overall design.
  • They had to give a presentation – in the form of business pitch – that was no more than 3 minutes long to present their prototypes.  Their presentation had to include specifications, the surface area, the cost, and a visual design.

In order to successfully complete the project, students were required complete six different tutorials on topics related to the material.  These tutorials took the form of instructional videos (we use PlayPosit), self-paced presentations (we used Nearpod), and self-graded Google Forms with embedded videos.  Over the 8-day period that students worked on the project, we periodically pulled students into small groups to re-teach on specific topics.  Completion of these tutorials became part of the students final project grade.

After completing this project, I have a few takeaways and thoughts from my first in-depth attempt at using Project-Based Learning.

One Thing I Liked: Use of Learning Management System

We used our school’s learning management system (itslearning) to organize materials for students to access.  For me, this was invaluable.  I didn’t have to direct students to multiple different websites, didn’t have to print out direction sheets or worksheets, and I was able to easily access my data from one, convenient location.  To me, using an LMS is a necessity in project-based and personalized learning environments.

One Thing I Would Change: Clearer Expectations for Presentations

By far, the biggest let-down for me in this project was the presentations that my students gave, and I know that’s 100% my own fault.  Students are used to simply standing in front of the class and reciting information, but this is not what I wanted.  Instead, I wanted students to give a business pitch, similar to what you would see on the TV show Shark Tank.  But I never showed them any examples.  I made one of the classic mistakes and assumed my students would know what I wanted.  In the future, I will definitely give an example of the type of presentation I am looking for

One Thing I Was Impressed By: My Students’ Creativity and Risk-Taking

One of the favorite parts of this project for many of my students was creating the actual prototypes.  Some of my students took the “easy route” and simply inserted an image from Google.  Some students went with a more traditional style and folded paper to make models.  Perhaps the neatest method I saw, though, was from my students who applied their skills from Technology Education class to create sketches using TinkerCad (and online drafting tool).  And even neater was the students who took those designs to our Multi-Media Center and printed them on our 3-D printer.  Awesome stuff, and a big shout-out to our Tech Ed teachers and Librarian for their help (even if they didn’t know it!)

One Thing I’m Not Sure About: Did I Really Assess All of My Students?

My students got to work in groups, so how do I know if all students truly understand how to find volume and surface area?  One thing I definitely to think more about in the future is my assessment practices through the unit.  Are formative assessments enough?  Are group project results enough?

Final Takeaways: Overall, I really enjoyed this project and will definitely use it again in the future – with some modifications.  I certainly feel that my students got value out of the activity, and look forward to how it can be improved in the future.

(Ohh, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about my project.  What suggestions do you have?  What do you think I could change?  I’m always open to suggestions and comments from others!)