Does Project-Based Learning Boost Engagement? Educators across the country are experimenting with introducing more and more project-based learning in the classroom. While project-based learning offers kinesthetic learners the chance to engage their individual learning style, it also provides an exciting learning alternative to traditional methods that boost engagement for all students. Project-based learning can be introduced to curriculum for any subject and numerous learning websites offer free resources for project-based learning. Timbers Middle School in Grapevine, Texas is home to an innovative math teacher who paired project-based learning with sports to create a months-long project to teach core mathematics concepts as well as spark student interest in STEM curriculum.

Tasked with creating plans for a large sports complex, 30 groups with 5 students per group, worked on various options for the complex. From planning to bidding, students worked on the details until their sports complex projects reached a ‘ready-to-build’ stage. While they didn’t actually get to build their sports complexes, the process served to teach mathematics concepts, engage students and create excitement for STEM careers.

“We’re planning a gi-normous, sports Disneyland,” said Andre Aguilar, 14, as he revealed his team’s sketch of a round central complex with radial extensions resembling the spokes of a wheel.

“It will be outside and will be eco-friendly,” he said. “It will have a main area with a fountain, and statues of different players playing sports.”

The circular design also caught on with Shelby Schumacher’s group, which is designing a swimming facility with a companion track and tennis courts.

“We’re trying to make our building round, because something different attracts more people,” said Shelby, 14. “Most people in my group have done all these sports, so they know what they want in a facility and what their needs are.”

Each of the eighth-grade math classes has five groups working on various aspects of the projects; 30 groups in all. “There are probably about 20 concepts out there,” said Elizabeth Pauley, their teacher. “One group wants to put an ice rink in theirs.”

The students have been working on the facilities project since mid-March, though some were held up by STAAR testing.

Aaron Freedenfeld, 14, is the project manager of his team of number-crunchers.

“We had to research track surfaces, materials and so forth,” he said. “We’re trying to do it as cheaply as possible, then look at the budget again.”

DaiAnn Mooney, the district’s chief financial officer, talked to the students about school budgeting, and now, Pauley said, the common question around the classroom is, “Will taxpayers really want to pay for this?”

“The budget scares them,” Pauley said. “They realize how expensive everything is.”

Next, they’ll present their projects to Superintendent Robin Ryan and the district’s leadership staff, instructional team and parents. The big reveal is Friday morning.

The sports facilities study is an example of project-based learning, a lesson plan that applies a real-life situation to curriculum in several subject areas. Students pick up problem-solving, critical thinking, research and collaborative skills in the process. The Grapevine-Colleyville district is integrating the concept in all core subject areas and grade levels.

The projects make math more real to the students, their teacher said, and sharpen their communication skills as they call companies to compile cost estimates. Their tech skills are honed as they create multimedia presentations and three-dimensional models on their tablets.

“I’ve enjoyed teaching more, and it’s been an adventure,” Pauley said. “I can’t get over the fact that, at the end of the year, I still have 100 percent student engagement.”

Her students have learned many things that have guided their work, including a calculation that high schools receive about $61 in funding per student for athletics, while middle schools get about $13 per student in athletic funding.

They’re not happy about that.

“This is long-term,” Pauley said. “They’re getting ready to be active citizens.”

shirleyjinkinsShirley Jinkins is a staff writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and writes about k-12 education.