Part 1: What is Project Based Learning?

By,  Dr. Annie Whitlock

blogpic The Mega Minds on a field trip to a local business as part of the One Hen program


What are the types of learning experiences you remember from elementary and middle school? They’re most likely not worksheets or standardized tests, but projects that engaged your mind and your heart. Project-based learning is an instructional method that can be used with all age levels of students—even my college students engage in projects in my courses. Although there are many ways researchers characterize project-based learning, this method is usually defined by its focus on having students answer a central question or solve a problem through their own innovation. Project-based learning gives students (who usually work in groups) the choice in the projects they choose and how they choose to create them. The projects also have relevance to the students’ lives and communities and are typically created for an audience outside of just the classroom teacher. True project-based learning is more… than just “doing a project”—it is immersing the students in the project, often involving many subject areas. For example, students may organize a recycling program for their school. This could benefit their school and the environment, and also incorporate math through budgeting the program, language arts through advertising for the program, science for researching recycling methods, and social studies for polling citizens and writing to authority figures. For more information on the “essentials” of project-based learning, this article is a good summary.


I taught middle school social studies for several years and was always looking for ways to engage my students in projects that benefitted the community. I was working as a social studies curriculum specialist for a charter school management company when I was introduced to the One Hen program. One Hen Academy is a great example of project-based learning. It has students working in teams to create a business that serves a global need or a need in the community. Students can choose how they want to design and market their products and the kind of community or global problem they want to address. Their projects then have a positive impact on others and allow the students to work for a meaningful goal beyond completion of a worksheet or standardized test. I have had the pleasure of watching many students engage in the One Hen program over the last few years as I helped middle school teachers in our charter schools teach the curriculum.


Now I am an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, specializing in elementary social studies. I focused my dissertation on examining project-based learning in social studies through the One Hen program. This blog series will focus on my experience teaching One Hen to a 5th grade class in Michigan in 2012 for my dissertation study. Kim, the classroom teacher I worked with, had been committed to project-based learning for years and welcomed the idea of co-teaching the One Hen with me. Kim’s class called themselves the “Mega Minds,” and I was part of their group from the first day of school. Kim liked to center her projects on themes, and this particular year, Kim wanted to focus on teaching about human rights. One Hen fit in with other ideas she had to integrate human rights education with all subjects and Kim and I ended up supplementing the One Hen curriculum with other activities and lessons related to human rights.


This blog series will describe the adventures we had working on the One Hen project, our learning experiences, and the impact the Mega Minds had on their community. It was truly an experience to remember.


s200_annie.whitlockAnnie Whitlock is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education at the University of Michigan-Flint. She teaches elementary social studies and writing methods. @AnnieWhitlock

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