PBL Tutorial – Incorporating Math into PBL

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Many OST providers are hesitant to incorporate math concepts into project-based learning (PBL). Some worry that math would take the fun out of an otherwise exciting, hands-on PBL project. Some struggle to envision any other method of math instruction than the worksheets and rote memorization they remember from school. Some lack confidence in their own mastery of math concepts, and avoid the subject altogether.

But math and PBL are a natural fit. By presenting young learners with real world problems, PBL offers teachers a chance to answer the perennial math class question: “When am I actually going to use this?” And by integrating math into concrete, hands-on problem solving, PBL offers a different approach to learning math for students who struggle with abstract concepts.

For OST providers who do incorporate math into PBL, there is also a temptation to think in terms of individual activities, rather than whole projects. Remember, in project-based learning, it is important that activities flow naturally from the driving question. When activities genuinely relate to the question being answered, students are able to recognize the purpose and value of the activity (even math!). And so, it is important to resist the temptation to build an entire project around a single activity, even if that activity does sound like a lot of fun.

PBL plans should speak to your students’ interests. So, if you notice a group of fifth grade boys folding paper airplanes, your Driving Question might be “How can we build the perfect paper airplane?” Students could record the distance traveled during each flight of their planes and those of their peers, and then analyze the data by calculating the mean, median and mode distances. Students could also experiment with the degree at which the wings are folded, using a protractor to create a 25, 35, 45 and 55 degree fold and determining which wing shape is most aerodynamic. For a Culminating Event, students could host a Paper Airplane Air Show, featuring plane construction demonstrations, posters explaining the physics of flight and paper airplane races.

OST students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships made and sold hula hoops during a recent PBL project. Students learned to calculate the perimeter and area of a circle in order to select the ideal hula hoop for their body shape and also budgeted for the “Hula Hoop Factory,” a sales initiative at their elementary school.  For other projects that incorporate math concepts, see Math Project Ideas on our Sample Projects page.

A number of resources are available online to help OST providers draw connections between math and “the real world.” The Community-Based Mathematics Project uses local, relevant examples to teach math to Philadelphia youth. Many students find it motivating to learn that so many professions rely on math concepts. Also, Real World Math offers a wealth of lesson ideas. However, the projects they suggest are not rooted to a purposeful Driving Questions, and instead merely string together a few activities by theme. For an OST provider planning an authentic, effective PBL project, this is a good jumping off point, but there is still work to be done.

However you incorporate math into your PBL plans, keep it exciting and relevant, and the project is sure to be a hit!

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