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Activating STEM Lessons With Project-Based Learning (and Zombies)

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Think about a traditional sit-and-get lesson:

“Today’s lesson will be about map skills: landforms, climate, elevation, migration, and population density.”

You can practically see the students decaying in their seats.

So what’s a better way to engage students? As a social studies teacher, I’ve begun to use STEM and Project-Based Learning (PBL) to cross content boundaries and create new connections to content. Here are six ways teachers can do this for any subject:

1. Pick the right driver for the learning

Michael Fullan got it right. Teachers need to think about choosing the right driving question for learning—so work with your colleagues and take your time. Teaching students can be like trying to wake the dead if they’re not motivated to learn.

I start by asking students an essential driving question and then let them focus on finding their answer. They begin sharing their voice with questions, what-ifs, and solutions. They are suddenly in control of their learning—and they run with it!

I recently tapped into pop culture by creating a zombie-based project for students. My essential driving question was, “Will you survive?” It got students out of their stupor… and got them to respond with a resounding, “YES!”

Here is how I set the project up: “You are a tourist in a European capital city. You must prepare a plan to survive a zombie attack. Suggest two possible safe places to go so you will be prepared. But before you can share this information, you have to research the major cities, their population density, climate, elevations, major transportation routes, main bodies of water, food and water resources, and anything else that can aid you in escaping and riding out the attack.”

Picture it: students are now in their learning zone. Their brains are engaged.

2. Collaborate with others to give students voice and choice

Engaging students to become more involved in their learning has become a passion of mine. To do this, I decided to use a popular topic—zombies—to liven things up.

But a good project has to be more than me working on an idea. I have to build capacity with other stakeholders.

Giving students a choice in their learning can be scary. Administrators, parents, and even your colleagues may question exactly how students are learning. You might face questions like: How can you give choices when there are specific standards that need to be met? How do you assess that these standards are achieved? How do you manage a classroom when students are all doing something different?

But students need to claim ownership of their work. It needs to matter to them. Giving students a voice—and choice—in their learning is what will create a meaningful project.

3. Create clear expectations that expand with the driving question

Handing a unit over to students is at the heart of project-based learning. But remember: giving students direction is different than giving them directions. The essential driving question should guide every checkpoint during learning. The unit will then become a critical thinking process that integrates technology and uses powerful reflection time.

Assessment for such projects also includes open-ended rubrics that give students a learning target. What that specific target looks like depends on your content standards as well as students’ skills.

My open-ended target project rubric included the following:

  • Research: Create four or more reasonable, insightful, creative questions you feel you need to know the answers to in order to survive.
  • Information Organization: Organize this information so it is easy for others to understand your plan.
  • Quality of Information: Answer the original questions. Give details and support your plan. Cite the information using reliable sites.
  • Data Included: Show why your plan should work. Include four or more reasons, examples, or pieces of data.
  • Amount of Information: Share your original question and geographical topics with at least two sentences about each.
  • Presentation: Present the survival plan in an accurate and interesting presentation. Peers will evaluate survival possibilities based on your presentation.

4. Go beyond your own classroom silo

Share your unit with colleagues and identify cross-connections. For example, my team has already started creating an interdisciplinary unit for next year. Through our classroom Twitter account @OMS6th, we have connected with classrooms around the world, sharing activities and information. Students spreading the Zombie-based unit content made these relationships even stronger. Most exciting of all, many new ideas came from students—an infectious outcome, in fact.

Here are a few ways this particular project can be adapted for different classes:

  • Science and math: exponential growth, STEM experiments, and infectious disease concepts
  • Art, English, journalism, and foreign languages: graphic novel creation, journaling, and creating public service announcements
  • Physical education: shuffling to Thriller, a zombie obstacle course
  • Drama and music: costume/make-up design, Garageband creations
  • Technology integrations: YouTube clips, Google Maps and Google Earth, Google Presentations, National Geographic Interactive Mapping, Prezi, Voki, and iMovie

5. Be authentic and adaptable

While researching this unit, I quickly found that I wasn’t the only one with zombies on the brain. The first source I bit into was Zombie-Based Learning. Their focus on teaching geography skills while engaging students in project-based learning was perfect. I adopted the ZBL resources into my current eastern hemisphere geography unit, thus not changing my curriculum but enhancing it. I also consulted other online sources such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Zombie Preparedness, which helped students start digging into the project. It also prepared them for emergency procedures, such as a bug-out bag in case of fire or extreme weather.

6. Celebrate!

Make sure to share these final projects with a broader audience. YouTube, Twitter, infographics, and student blogging are just the beginning. This is one example of a student-created video introducing the unit.

Students ate this unit up! And I realized that this short unit has so much potential to spread. Students’ focus switched from surviving the end of the school year to surviving their own zombie-infected European vacation—and they even met core standards that I hadn’t considered implementing.

Creating a project-based learning unit is a lot like surviving a zombie attack. It isn't going to be easy, but with a cool head, the right tools, and a good plan, you can tilt the odds in your favor and engage the brains in your classroom.

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