Why Project-Based Learning Isn’t Just for Students

By: Amy Pavelich, Zulama Copy Editor

At the heart of our Computer Science and Game Design Certificate Program is a project: you design an original video game and then showcase it in a digital portfolio. But how will this fun professional learning experience help shape and inform your own teaching practices once you step back into the classroom?

In this post, we’ll explore how professional learning that is tech-oriented and project-based gives you an upper hand when teaching in a student-centered learning environment. PBL curriculum can open your classroom walls, turning your classroom into a laboratory of divergent thinking, creativity, and active learning.

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.John Dewey

The Growing Influence of Project-Based Learning (PBL)

John Dewey (1859–1952), a pioneering thought leader and educator, advocated “learning by doing.” He argued that if lessons were focused only on content and not driven by an experiential element, learners would be deprived of making informed opinions based on their interaction with the content. But, he went further in suggesting that “each student’s experience will be individualized based on past experiences, and not all students will take away the same outlook of the concept. Thus, the experiential learning classroom mimics society, where all people have different views of topics and information” (Learn NC, 2009).

While the idea of learning by doing was not new, Dewey’s advocacy for it in the early twentieth century led to it becoming “a recognized field of education, and in 1977 the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) was established” (Hammerman, Hammerman, & Hammerman, 2001). And PBL has gained momentum as technology has advanced. In today’s world, students have so much information to traverse and assess, and PBL gives them the ability to use higher-order thinking skills to identify and solve problems that are increasingly complex and unique to the twenty-first century.

As PBL’s influence has grown, experts have tried to pinpoint some key ingredients for making PBL effective. Typical elements of PBL include real-world context, collaboration, various communication strategies, and authentic assessments. Adding a technology component can help to enhance the experience into one of deeper learning.

How does the Zulama brand of PBL stand apart from the traditional model?

projects, pbl, learning, PD

  • Students learn the foundational skills of computer science, which are critical to today’s workforce development.
  • We hook kids’ interest with game design as the content focus.
  • Teacher-facilitated lessons combine traditional methods, such as reading assignments, with dynamic student-created projects that give students greater autonomy and ownership of their learning, sparking empathy, creativity, and passion in their work.

Essentially, we give PBL a lift.

Impacts of PBL Professional Development (PD)

In a landmark study conducted by the Buck Institute for Education, researchers wanted to determine how PBL professional development (PD) would impact teachers in a poor rural state. They found that teachers with PBL PD experiences were more likely than teachers without it to be successful in teaching and assessing 21st-century skills. Why? It turns out these teachers were more likely to incorporate PBL curriculum once they got back into their classrooms. But that’s not all! These same teachers also were more likely to share and provide PBL PD to other teachers. And that, of course, leads to systemic change! Because PBL is immersed in authentic assessment, where you have check-ins and multifaceted assessments at intervals throughout the project, you have a better gauge on where your students are at in their learning and can use this to guide them to deeper learning.

“Facilitating” PBL

Teaching a rigorous tech-oriented PBL curriculum has all kinds of benefits: higher student achievement, a decline in absenteeism, increased cooperative learning skills, less teacher burnout, among others.

Going through our Certificate Program will give you the initial exposure to how tech-oriented PBL curriculum works. It will alleviate some of the concerns and hesitation you might have about instituting PBL, turning your view from one that’s steeped in “risk” to one filled with boundless opportunities for growth for you and your students.

PBL curriculum is student driven, meaning you must adopt the mindset of facilitator:

  •    Be open to uncertainties.
  •    Be okay with not correcting students’ mistakes.
  •    Be present.
  •    Ask good questions to redirect students when they get off task.
  •    See yourself as a co-learner alongside your students.

Facilitator

Keeping these helpful strategies in mind will make your transition from teacher to facilitator a much smoother one.

Cultivating Empathy through PBL

One other key to a successful PBL experience is empathy. At the core of PBL is collaboration, which requires a commitment to listening to others, valuing their perspectives, understanding where they’re coming from, and then being willing to adjust your own perspective based on this new information.

As you work your way through our professional learning, your ultimate project will be to design and code an original game. This is when thinking like a game designer and keeping the player experience in mind becomes critical. You must empathize with the player, developing a deep understanding of how the player will experience your game. This drives your creative process: What is the purpose of the game? Is it fun, engaging, challenging? Or is it frustrating, boring? Empathy also informs the playtesting process, where someone else plays your game. While you may think your game is great as is, your audience could feel otherwise and point out issues you may have overlooked. Having the ability to perceive others’ perspectives and understanding their experiences will help you look at your game from new angles. Perhaps there is room for improvement, after all! Cultivating empathy through game design projects is a means for actively practicing and modeling empathy with your students. And if you have experienced PBL first-hand in your own professional learning, you will be able to better understand and empathize with your students as they learn through projects in the classroom.

Learning from and Leading through Empathy

As your students work on their own game design projects, with your guidance, they too will begin to understand the importance of empathy, not only in how it applies to the player experience, but in a greater world context. As they interact with one another in group collaboration and feedback loops, they’re practicing skills that will make their futures brighter: actively listening to better understand and value other perspectives beside their own. Empathy drives the PBL curriculum—it’s what makes collaboration successful, what inspires people to look at things differently to make better decisions, and helps spark new ideas. This culture of collaboration cultivates outstanding leadership skills and the desire to be compassionate world citizens who tackle challenging problems with breakout innovations.

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This post is part of a blog series in support of our new professional learning opportunity, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate, co-developed with the Computer Science Teachers Association. For more on the intersection of computer science and professional learning, read the previous posts in the series:

Why Game Design Is an Awesome Introduction to Computer Science

By Lily Taylor, Community Advocate

Lynn Vanderzyl was new to teaching high school computer science (CS), and she started out in the logical placeteaching a programming course using Visual Basic, Python, and Java. Unfortunately, the course wasn’t engaging her students: “My classes were too small and they dropped my program.” The following year, the course was redesigned with a focus on game design, with students working together to build video games and learn CS in the process. And it worked!

“They are still learning to code but they don’t realize it.” —Lynn Vanderzyl

Student demand for this course was so high that Lynn offered four gaming classes in the first year, and all of them were full. She’s since added two more advanced game programming courses and loves the projects that her students create each year.

Why is game design an awesome introduction to computer science?

As a part of our Computer Science and Professional Development blog series, we asked CS and game design students, teachers, and professionals that question. A few answers showed up consistently:

  • Games make CS relatable.
  • Games help students understand why they’re coding.
  • Games prepare the next generation to shape society.

 

“It’s culturally relevant for kids.”

Before students can learn CS, they have to want to learn to CS. And as Lynn discovered, a love of gaming can draw a lot of different students into a computer lab. Schell Games game designer, Sabrina Culyba, sums up why students get so excited to take a CS course when it is based around gaming:

“It’s culturally relevant for kids. They play games. Their peers play games. By leveraging game design and game creation, you give kids a reason for computer science to be meaningful as an everyday tool that helps them create and express themselves.” Sabrina Culyba

 

Students see the tangible results of their code.

Games are more than just a gateway into CS; they can also serve as long-term learning tools. James Staffen, an undergraduate CS major at Penn State and a former Zulama student, is a big believer in learning CS by designing games. He started programming in high school and knows how challenging the learning process can be.

“When you are coding just to learn coding, you don’t understand what the point of it is. When you are coding to build a game, you can easily see the results of your code, the point of coding, the power of coding.” —James Staffen

Lynn agrees that it is thrilling for students to see the “immediate results” of their code. She adds that this fun experience leads students to want to dig deeper: “Once they get a simple game going they want to add more to it. The only way to add to it is to learn more coding.”

 

 

Game design prepares student programmers to shape society.

What are the bigger-picture implications of learning CS through building games? How do we want the next generation of computer scientists and programmers to think, communicate, and design? Sabrina Culyba explains that games help students develop empathy, a key to using computing skills effectively in the real world.

“Good game design requires you to consider your players—what are you trying to help them feel, understand, achieve? This mindset of designing to meet the needs and desires of others is a critical skill for us to cultivate in students as they grow up to build the next technologies that will shape our society.” —Sabrina Culyba

Sabrina’s point raises the question: What other skills, along with empathy, do student programmers need in order to grow into positive, powerful forces in modern society? At Zulama, we believe that collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity (if we were cooler we’d call them the 4Cs) are vital skills for all students to develop. Traditional CS courses don’t always focus on helping students build those skills. But when students work together to make games, they naturally tap into their creativity, talk to each other, and solve problemsall while learning the principles of computer science.

 

Growth Mindset – Part 1

Janna Peskett (@jannapeskett) and Anthony Colannino (@AJCMindset) from Mindset Works joined Nikki Navta to discuss Growth Mindset in the classroom. Janna and Anthony provide ideas for how to integrate the language of growth into teacher-student communication. They discuss various methods for framing challenges and giving critical feedback.

Part 1 of 2

Reinventing Learning Using Games – Part 2

Ryan Schaaf (@RyanLSchaaf), Jackie Gerstein (@jackiegerstein), and Jodi Asbell-Clarke (@Asbellcl) join in to discuss the shift towards using games in the classroom. We’ll cover the best ways to use games to redefine failure, work through the iterative process, and reignite student engagement!

#RMLHangout, #GBL, #GameBasedLearning

Part 2 of 2

Reinventing Learning Using Games – Part 1

Ryan Schaaf (@RyanLSchaaf), Jackie Gerstein (@jackiegerstein), and Jodi Asbell-Clarke (@Asbellcl) join in to discuss the shift towards using games in the classroom. We’ll cover the best ways to use games to redefine failure, work through the iterative process, and reignite student engagement!

#RMLHangout, #GBL, #GameBasedLearning

Part 1 of 2