Three Dimensional Learning: Experimenting with Project-Based Science

I am always on the hunt for articles that help me build on my educational philosophy. In my searching I stumbled upon an article that intrigued me by Joe Krajcik (2015) that focuses on what he calls Project-Based Science. In his article Krajcik discusses the huge shift, as of late, to focus classroom learning on students creating solutions to real world problems that they can connect with on a personal level. This focus helps create a learning environment where students feel that they have a say in how, and what, they learn. The argument is that this autonomy lends itself to increased student ownership in how the content is approached. As suspected, I could see a lot of connections in this to Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL).

In his article, Krajcik discusses the importance of project-based science in meeting the guidelines laid out by the National Research Council (NRC) in their document titled The Framework (NRC 2014). This document outlines three main aspects of effective science teaching, which they collectively identify as “Three Dimensional Learning”.

These dimensions, which the NRC states are required to address science standards, include the following:

Practices (dimension 1) - The practices describe behaviours that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world.

Crosscutting concepts (dimension 2) - The idea that all domains of science are connected

Core ideas (dimension 3) - The curriculum.

Krajcik focuses on the first dimension (practices) and makes a very strong case for PBL as an essential piece of the puzzle. PBL ties in perfectly with inquiry which, as the Framework states, is essential to the process of scientific discovery and exploration. If we rely exclusively on traditional scientific practices, such as the scientific method, we are essentially removing the students from the equation (for lack of a better word) and not allowing them the freedom to discover the content in their own way.

The Framework goes on to further describe eight main practices that are essential to three dimensional learning, all of which fall directly into the realm of open inquiry, Project-Based Learning and the Maker Philosophy.

Photo by Irene Lee

Asking questions and defining problems

Questions are nothing new to science. The main difference between the PBL approach and other, more

traditional, approaches is that, in PBL, students answer or ask these questions in a way that is more meaningful to them. This concept goes back as far as Dewey (1938), who encouraged teachers to pull from topics that are relevant to their students’ lives. If we tackle the process of asking questions and solving problems in this way, we are allowing the students to connect with the content in ways that make sense to them. The key here is to ask meaningful and relevant questions, something that Krajcik refers to as “driving questions” (Mayer, Damelin, and Krajcik 2013). These are typically broad, open-ended questions which allow students to approach the problem in their own way. An example of such a query might be; “Why does electricity travel through some things and not others?” The nature of this type of question allows the student to address it in a way that makes sense to them. Maybe they can attempt to answer it through an experiment that involves an inflated balloon and some everyday materials. Maybe they choose to experiment with circuits or build a water monitoring system with a micro-controller. All of these possibilities connect with the intended outcomes but have slightly different approaches that connect with the student directly.

Developing and using models

Models have been a very useful tool in the science classroom as a way to demonstrate scientific concepts that might be challenging to conceptualize without a visual aid. In the PBL classroom however, the students and teachers are co-creating these models together. As such, these models are not only used as learning tools but as evidence of student learning as well. By involving the students in the creation of these useful tools you are involving them in the construction of the learning within the classroom.

Planning and carrying out investigations

Investigations at this stage involve investigating relationships and determining independent and dependant variables. Again, through PBL, students are able to identify these variables through open-ended exploration in a way that relates to them. In referring back to the driving question used above, we could see how someone experimenting with a balloon might plan an experiment that tests how well certain materials are attracted to a balloon charged with static. With the help of a teacher facilitating and helping guide inquiry, the student is able to extract variables and begin to understand how they relate to each other.

Analyzing and interpreting data

Any effective inquiry process has to allow for students to try, fail, learn and modify their approach. This is an essential piece of the puzzle that really separates inquiry from traditional forms of scientific learning. To develop the ability to interpret an outcome and see how it can be improved upon is key to success in the sciences. In engineering we see this all the time and label it as prototyping. I would like to argue that students can prototype in “science” class as well - we call this “experimenting”. I would further argue that when we use the word experiment in science class we are sometimes misusing it. In other words, is an experiment where everyone knows the outcome actually an experiment? Or are we just following a set of instructions? I feel that inquiry really allows us to truly become scientists and/or engineers as it allows us to experiment in the true form of the word.

Using mathematics and computational thinking

Much has been said about computational thinking as of late. Despite this, many do not fully understanding the true meaning of the term. Computational thinking does not just refer to using computers to illustrate or model something but refers to the larger idea of thinking about a problem and addressing it like a computer scientist. In essence, computational thinking involves decomposing a problem into smaller, more manageable parts and looking for patterns and relationships. Then formulating an algorithm that describes this relationship. The Framework refers to the need for computational thinking here as a way to summarize the work that has been done up to this point. In other words, by applying the computational thinking process here, one is able to decipher the data that has been collected and summarize it in a way that makes sense.

Constructing explanations and designing solutions.

Once results have been collected and summarized, the next step is to explain why we see certain results and/or attempt to solve the problem that has been presented. The infusion of inquiry in this process permits students to not only pull from the content that they have acquired from their experiment, but to pull from past experiences and learnings. An interesting aspect of this is that it can easily become cross curricular as students could use knowledge they acquired from history class, for example, to help support their theories by referencing historical events that connect with their experiment.

Engaging in argument from evidence

One of the essential aspects of project-based learning is providing the opportunity to showcase student work

in a public forum. Ideally, the audience at this forum is varied and consists of peers, teachers, experts/professionals and other members of the community. These forums not only allow students to share their work, but to receive feedback from a wide range of people. This allows their work to be critiqued in a safe environment and allows them to either defend their reasoning or make modifications to their work.

Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Researchers and engineers are no longer restricted to confines of a laboratory at the local university. In the pursuit of truth, scientists now have the added responsibility to convey this truth and these new discoveries to the rest of society. As was mentioned above, sharing your work with the greater community is an essential part of project-based learning and this transfers into every aspect of science.

In essence, PBL allows students to explore this social aspect of science and develop 21st Century Skills, or Essential Skills. Through this process, students gain valuable collaboration skills, increased ability to think critically, a stronger understanding of their individuality and creativity and essential communication skills that allow them to share and articulate their findings to a larger audience.

Krajcik does an excellent job at linking project-based learning to the Framework document and at demonstrating how PBL can be used to address the standards set out for science teachers. More often than not, teachers feel that they need to sacrifice the inquiry process in order to meet curriculum deadlines and content restrictions. Krajcik clearly demonstrates that you don’t need to choose one over the other, effectively illustrating the genius of AND and the tyranny or OR. By making these connections, our students are fully immersed in scientific inquiry and are able to truly participate in the experimentation process in a way that is relevant to them and to the world around them.


J. S. Krajcik. 2015. Project-based Science. The Science Teacher

National Research Council (NRC). 2014. Developing assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Dewey, J. 1938. The school and society. Dewey on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mayer, K., D. Damelin, J. S. Krajcik. 2013. Linked in: Using modeling as a link to other scientific practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. The Science Teacher

#kayoestewart #STEAM #ProjectBasedLearning #science

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