The Environment as a Compelling Portal for PBL


Equipping students to successfully navigate the complex environmental challenges of the 2lst century by re-thinking, re-designing and creating viable solutions is emerging as a key task for educators. At first glance, the prospect of adding one more responsibility into an already demanding mix of content requirements seems daunting. However, many creative educators are taking up the charge to increase environmental knowledge by engaging their students in school and community projects that make a difference today and impart core academic, workforce readiness and life skills that are critical for the future.

Consider, for example, the middle school students at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., who have identified more than 50 species of native bees that can be found on their urban campus, several of which have never before been documented in the city. This project has contributed to a “real-world” biodiversity study; students use the same field-investigation skills practiced by scientists around the world to collect insect samples and work with researchers from the Smithsonian Institute to identify the bees and their habitat.

In response to budget shortages affecting their school district, students at Carver Middle School in Coral Gables, Fla., studied, designed and implemented cost-saving energy-conservation projects that have increased their schools’ energy efficiency by 28% in one school year. But they weren’t satisfied with that result alone. In order to expand impact beyond the school walls, students gave a presentation of their energy-efficiency strategies before Miami International Airport officials that led to the institution of new sustainability initiatives at the airport.

High quality environmental education (EE) and good project-based learning have much in common. The above projects are just two examples of the ways students have made significant contributions to their local environment, while developing critical thinking skills and a deep understanding of academic content. In EE students research and develop solutions to “real-world” challenges in a collaborative setting. And involving and educating the community – the “Public Audience” element of PBL - is a pillar of successful EE.

The renewed effort to engage students in applying and “doing” science, rather than memorizing terms and equations for standardized tests presents a rich opportunity to harness school grounds and facilities, parks, forests and waterways, as living environmental laboratories ripe for inquiry-based learning. What better way to “do” science and to expose students to STEM career possibilities than to engage students in environmental projects that allow them to connect with experts while making a lasting impact on their community?

While most common in the science classroom, environmental project-based learning is not limited to the science disciplines. Envision a math class comparing the relative efficiencies of different fuels and presenting their findings to the city or an art class working with a local printing business to turn waste paper into art to be enjoyed by the entire community. Furthermore, environmental project-based learning provides an ideal opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, where students develop and apply skills in research, data collection and analysis, writing and presenting, throughout the course of the project.

With the plentiful learning opportunities afforded by a variety of compelling environmental topics, the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) is working to expand project-based learning in the environment. Our Classroom Earth website provides an array of standards-based resources across all academic disciplines that educators can easily access to integrate the environment into whatever subject they teach. NEEF has recently collaborated with the Pacific Education Institute and the Buck Institute for Education to provide teachers with an on-line opportunity through to learn and apply the fundamentals of project-based learning by involving their students in a Schoolyard Habitat Project. In this project, students research, design and implement a plan to enhance their school campus by creating vital wildlife habitat, planting native plants or removing weeds and invasive plants from the school grounds.

Through National Environmental Education Week’s Green STEM focus, NEEF is undertaking a multi-year initiative and working with partners around the country to position the environment as a compelling portal for teaching and engaging students in STEM and 21st Century skills. With environmental science jobs expected to grow by 25% by 2016—the fastest among the sciences—compelling environmental projects can serve as a gateway for future environmental engineers, green chemists and sustainable design entrepreneurs. Given that 57% of STEM college students report that it was a teacher or class prior to college that initially sparked their interest in STEM, capitalizing on strong student interest in the environment also helps attract students to learn and use skills that are not only in demand but which will play a critical role for the future well-being of our nation and our world.


Environmental PBL

Dirty Hands, Clean Planet! Environmental education projects create a compelling context for engaging students and enable teachers to meet standards, build 21st Century skills, and develop life-long stewards. Hear about various project examples, including one available at BIE's new online training program, -- the Schoolyard Habitat Project, which involves students in a real-world project to enhance their school campus.

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