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?

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  • 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.

 

21st Century Skills and Project Based Learning – Part 2

Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) and Nick Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher) share tips and classroom examples for using Project Based Learning to increase student performance and growth of 21st Century Skills.

Part 2 of 2

21st Century Skills and Project Based Learning – Part 1

Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) and Nick Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher) share tips and classroom examples for using Project Based Learning to increase student performance and growth of 21st Century Skills.

Part 1 of 2

Teaching 21st Century Learners

Norton Gusky, Educational Consultant

In the late 1990s the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) created a framework for learning in the new millennium. Yet, just over fifteen years into the new century it’s already time to rethink the P21 framework. First there was the 3Rs. Then came the 4Cs—communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. To this, P21 added life and career skills and information and media skills. Today in order to meet the needs of 21st Century learners we need to build out the skill set further to include computational thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, and dispositions like persistence.

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In its educational leadership role, the South Fayette School District, located south of Pittsburgh,  has developed an articulated K-12 model for learning that addresses all the key elements of the P21 framework. Called “STEAM Fusion”, South Fayette’s model integrates engineering and design problem-based learning. Going one step further its model pulls in elements of computational thinking, career connections, and entrepreneurial spirit.  This article brings to light the South Fayette model in an interview with Aileen Owens, the Director of Technology and Innovation. In addition, this article will share the perspective of Jerry Cozewith, the executive director of Entrepreneuring Youth, a non-profit organization in PIttsburgh that targets minority and underserved youth in grades 6-12.

The South Fayette STEAM Fusion Model

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For Aileen Owens, computational thinking plays a key role in opening up opportunities for innovation. “I developed a computational thinking initiative and that initiative is a way to teach the thought processes of innovation for our students.”  Aileen Owens in a proposal for a grant support from the Grable Foundation, a major educational foundation in the Pittsburgh area, outlined the role of computational thinking:

Computational thinking as a process of working effectively with computer-based technology is the new literacy. Understanding programming is as important to our children’s future as the basic reading, writing, and mathematics literacies. Computational thinking, as described in the working definition established by ISTE/CSTE, is a problem-solving process that includes (but is not limited to) the following characteristics:

  • Formulating problems in a way that enables people to use a computer and other tools to help solve them.
  • Logically organizing and analyzing data.
  • Representing data through abstractions such as models and simulations.
  • Automating solutions through algorithmic thinking (a series of ordered steps).
  • Identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources.
  • Generalizing and transferring this problem-solving process to a wide variety of problems.

 

In addition to computational thinking the South Fayette model incorporates a series of dispositions called Habits of Mind. According to Aileen there are five key Habits of Mind that are essential to Computational Thinking: ·       

  • Confidence in dealing with complexity
  • Persistence in working with difficult problems
  • Tolerance for ambiguity.
  • The ability to deal with open-ended problems
  • The ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution.

Entrepreneuring Youth

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According to the Entrepreneuring Youth website: “We help young people start and operate businesses as a way to guide them toward their own path to success after high school. When young people run businesses of their own creation, they bloom with newfound confidence. They discover talents which were once hidden. They think of themselves as “owners” and “presidents.” Young people who become young entrepreneurs realize the value of creating (rather than waiting) for opportunities.”
According to one of the young entrepreneurs featured in a promotional video, EY gave her a voice. “… I could stand up before all of these people and say things that were on mind.”

Jerry Cozewith focuses on the concept of “self-efficacy” as the key for success. It’s about empowering youth. It’s not just that kids learn the value of owning a business; it’s more about the growth of young men and women who have the tools and awareness that will make them successful wherever they travel or seek to make their imprint. The EY program expands on the P21 4Cs by giving students motivation. Without motivation learning does not happen.

The Role of of the Zuluma Entertainment Technology Academy

How does this new definition for 21st Century Learning fit into the Zulama framework? Zulama is built upon the same computational thinking framework outlined by Aileen Owens. In every Zulama course students are using computers to solve problems. In every course students create models, test their ideas, and use a process of iteration to develop creative products. The students build upon class activities to create modified games, 2D and 3D animations, or screenplays for video scripts.

The Habits of Mind that frame the South Fayette Fusion model are essential to the growth of learners in the Zulama Entertainment Academy. Students learn to deal the complexity of game-based learning systems. Students gain an awareness of ambiguity. Students work with open-ended problems often as part of collaborative teams.

The Entrepreneurial spirit shines in the Zulama Studio Courses. Here students work in teams to create creative solutions for their school, their community, or for global partners. The sense of “self efficacy” identified by Jerry Cowewith is seen over and over among Zulama students. Zulama students are truly motivated and become an esprit corps that sells the value of this type of 21st century learning to other students.

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