Gold Standard PBL: Challenging Problem or Question

At the top of the diagram of the Essential Project Design Elements in BIE’s model of Gold Standard Project Based Learning is “Challenging Problem or Question.” That element is on top because it’s the seed from which a project grows; it’s what the project is “about” if you sum it up.

A “problem” can take many forms, depending on the subject area and type of project. It could be a made-up situation, like case study or a scenario, or it could be a fully-authentic real-world problem. The problem could be a design challenge to create something tangible, as in the example described below. A project focused on a “challenging question” might be focused on taking a stand on an issue (“Should the U.S. admit Syrian refugees?” or “Should our town develop or preserve its open space?”) or answering a “philosophical” question (“Is hate speech free speech?” or “Should we kill spiders?”).

Btw, we still recommend that teachers – sometimes co-creating with students – capture the project’s problem or question in the form of an engaging, open-ended, student-friendly “driving question.” Establishing the driving question is the beginning of the sustained inquiry process that continues throughout a project. (For more on how to write a good driving question for a project, see BIE’s webinar.)

In our Hangout on Oct. 27, 2015, I talked with two of our National Faculty members and a special guest about some powerful examples of challenging real-world problems that students are tackling in PBL classrooms.

Kris Hanks serves as the teacher resource for a pilot program in Anne Arundel County, Maryland that focuses on PBL in elementary schools through the lens of STEM, Arts and Humanities, Global Studies, and World Cultures & Language. As an example of a challenging problem or question, Kris described a problem that was all too real-world for some 5th graders: the P.A. system in their classroom was too loud when announcements were made. This situation sparked the idea for a project whose driving question was “How can we improve the acoustic environment in our classroom?”

Students created proposals for a device or structure to muffle the P.A. system, and presented their ideas to a panel of adults. This problem, Kris notes, was powerful because (a) it came from the students, and (b) it was actionable. The problem also presented opportunities for students to learn important science content and build 21st century success skills.

Rich Lehrer, who teaches 8th grade science and 6th grade global studies at Brookwood School in Massachusetts, reinforced the point that real-world problems are often the most effective basis for Gold Standard PBL projects. Students are especially motivated, he noted, by doing work that benefits someone. Five years ago, Rich’s son was born without fingers on his right hand. This was the impetus for a STEM project in 2012 in which his 8th-grade students focused on the driving question, “How can we build functional 3D-printed prosthetics for children born without fingers?”

During the project, students researched human limb anatomy and physiology, learned about the factors that can affect limb structure and function and the history of the use of prosthetics. Rich and his class learned about and joined the e-NABLE network, a growing worldwide organization that brings 3D-printed prosthetics to children around the world. Then they designed simple functional mechanical devices to accomplish a series of grasping and lifting tasks, and ultimately put their understanding to use with e-NABLE to 3D print and construct mechanical devices for people in need. The project is described in detail on completed project planning forms at

For teachers interested in further exploring these kinds of projects, Rich recommends eNABLE’s online educators exchange, e3STEAM. There teachers can join “a global community of like-minded educators who will collaborate with each other and share e-NABLE inspired ideas, experiences, curriculum, and best practices through online discussions and an open-source file repository.” Young people can join the e-NABLE community too. Rich also created a “design problem bank” where members of the community can post real-world problems for students to solve in projects.

Our special guest in the Hangout was Jon Schull, founder of e-NABLE and a professor/research scientist at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. In explaining his background in PBL, Jon described teaching his “favorite course ever” a few years ago: an engineering class called Innovation and Invention, which was “one project-based semester after another.” He founded e-NABLE after hearing about a project conducted by some other professors in which senior engineering students created custom-made prosthetic limb designs for a client, and realized “there were probably another 10,000 more people around the world who could use this same custom prosthetic.” But the professors said that when the course was over and students graduated, the designs for the prosthetics “go in our filing cabinet.” Jon was inspired to bring this idea out of the filing cabinet and into the world.

Jon could not convince his university – which, he notes, is the birthplace of Project Lead the Way – to take on this challenge, nor would any other university. Over a year later, he saw a YouTube video in which a South African carpenter who had lost fingers in a shop accident told about partnering with a puppet-maker in the state of Washington to create a low-cost prosthetic hand with a 3D printer. Just as the video was going viral, Jon posted a comment with a request for other people interested in the idea to put a pin a Google map. Within weeks he had a substantial network ready to be mobilized, and e-NABLE was born. Today, well over 6500 people around the world have joined e-NABLE. Jon was contacted by Rich Lehrer in summer 2015, who coordinated the development of an online community of over 500 teachers who use e-NABLE related activities in the classroom.

We concluded our Hangout with a discussion of where teachers can get ideas for a challenging problem or question to frame a PBL project. Kris mentioned that she liked using lunch duty at her school to talk with kids about ideas, as an informal focus group, noting “they have questions and want to do meaningful work.” Rich said, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you’re a PBL teacher, everything looks like an opportunity to engage your kids in a profound and meaningful learning experience.”

How do you get ideas for projects? What challenging problems and questions have your students tackled? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Some material drawn from Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning (ASCD 2015) authored by the Buck Institute for Education.