All Hands on Deck: Project-Based Learning and STEM in the Elementary Classroom

08 Jun 2023

Jenn Stormer, a DoD STEM Ambassador, investigates project-based learning to increase student engagement

Project-based STEM learning focuses on student-centered learning in which students are actively involved and engaged. Students solve problems through real-world scenarios requiring research, experimentation, and collaboration with peers.

All Hands on Deck: Project-Based Learning and STEM in the Elementary Classroom

The following was written by Jenn Stormer, an elementary school science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Stormer was selected by the Dayton Regional STEM Center, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year.

It is common knowledge among educators that educational trends and buzzwords ebb and flow in the collective consciousness each and every school year. During my nearly two decades of teaching, I can recall a plethora of new “groundbreaking” pedagogy that promised to change education forever. Annual conferences feature new methodologies only to see them fade quickly away as the next ideology makes its debut. Lately, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding STEM education and project-based learning (PBL). Are these concepts another fleeting trend, or should they stick around for the long haul?

There is staggering data indicating that the United States is falling further and further behind in the science and math fields compared with other leading countries. In fact, many projections show that the STEM worker shortage in the United States is at a crisis level and expected to continue to worsen. According to the US News and World Report, 3.5 million STEM jobs are projected to be unfilled by 2025.

If I could solve the STEM workforce shortage, I would probably enjoy a great deal more money and fame than I currently possess. However, I was interested in investigating what role (if any) STEM education and PBL could play to increase interest in STEM engagement and knowledge for my students. I decided to conduct my own action research project in order to see for myself how effective this pedagogy really is and how it might help create a pipeline to STEM careers.

In my study, I considered how STEM learning and PBL can impact retention of science concepts and student engagement. Enter my guinea pigs: my classroom of sixth grade science students. I decided to compare two units: one where students were immersed in a rocks and minerals PBL unit with multiple STEM activities and a second where students were taught a physical science unit in a traditional manner.

The rocks and minerals unit tasked students with creating a website about rocks and minerals concepts. The students were immediately excited about this assignment. To introduce new learning targets, I combined some direct instruction with hands-on STEM exploration activities involving problem-solving, participation in healthy argumentation and collaboration. Throughout the unit, I observed high engagement and participation. When I analyzed classwork data, the class average was a solid 92%, and when it came time for the summative assessment, the student average was 87%.

Elementary school students working on project-based learning activities in STEM subjects. Photos courtesy of Jenn Stormer

For the physical science unit taught in a traditional style, students received information solely from direct instruction, videos, and text. In this unit, students learned about elements, compounds, mixtures, states of matter and other physical science concepts related to matter. I observed much more disengagement and had to intervene to address off-task behavior more frequently. The average on classwork landed at 85% with a summative assessment score of 83%.

To be honest, I was a little surprised at this data. I went in wanting to show a vast difference in data between the two methodologies, but as you can see, there wasn’t a great difference in the classwork and test data. This indicated to me that students in general were able to comprehend the material no matter how it was presented. However, I still had to assess retention. To get a true representation of student retention, I decided to readminister the summative assessment after a substantial amount of time. Without prior warning (to prevent any extra preparation) I gave the rocks and minerals test three months later and the physical science unit a mere three weeks after completion. This time, the data was much more disparate. The class average for the physical science unit was a harrowing 53%, while three months after studying the rocks and minerals PBL unit, students scored a robust class average of 83%.

Anyone in STEM fields will tell you that it is a data-driven world. If we want our students to embrace STEM, we have to walk the walk. I had some key takeaways from my research project. One, regardless of the methodology implemented, students were able to understand and recall the information presented. But more importantly, there was much greater retention and engagement when students were presented information using STEM and PBL approaches. Will this be the finite answer to our shortage in the STEM fields? Likely not. But could it help? I believe so.

In closing, I am sold that STEM and PBL should be here to stay. I encourage you to consider your own “why” for teaching it. Sure, STEM and PBL can be a bit messier and louder, but when you really scrutinize the noise, what you will see and hear are students developing a love of STEM learning while refining skills in problem-solving, collaboration and critical thinking. Ultimately, that is my greatest goal. Don’t take my word for it, though. Do your own action research. I think you just might see what all the hullabaloo is about.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation's STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About Dayton Regional STEM Center

The Dayton Regional STEM Center (DRSC) coordinates an established network of regional institutions and professionals that provide rich opportunities for STEM education by training and supporting educators, designing curriculum aligned with workforce needs, training school leaders at the district and building level and supporting schools and program models committed to STEM teaching and learning. DRSC serves as a hub location for building pathways into STEM careers in defense installations, including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the Dayton, Ohio area.