Kanter, D. E. (2010). Doing the project and learning the content: Designing project-based science curricula for meaningful understanding. Science Education, 94(3), 525-551.
Students do not often gain meaningful understanding when they are assigned projects to design or make something. The author reports on instructional solutions to this problem.
Evidence from some studies points to project-based science (PBS) as the most effective way to teach standards-based science. However, the goal of science instruction, beyond standards accountability, is that students be able to positively transfer learned, science-based concepts in order to solve novel problems. The author presents a series of systematic experiment approaches that can be applied to any science instruction. The system of analysis used by the author to discover possible techniques to improve meaningful learning from PBS is very similar to the “understanding by design,” backwards design, or reverse engineering concept.
Although the author does quite a bit of qualifying the encouraging research results in the discussion portion of the paper, many of the techniques can be incorporated into a science project curriculum and bring enough improvement to make experimenting with these techniques, worth the effort.
The first redesign, creating a demand (within the student) for unfamiliar content, addresses the problem of a student not understanding why they have to know certain content in order to do a project, before they do the project. The old way asks a student to trust that the instructor is steering them in the right direction. The recommended redesign uses three approaches (unpacking the task, highlighting the incongruity, and trying to apply) in order to stimulate student understanding of why they might need to know something.
The second redesign, applying all the content, addresses the problem of a student realizing that the content they are required to study may be relevant to the project, but not necessary for the project to be successfully completed. The old way simply required the student to learn the target content, whether or not the content was essential for the project. The recommended redesign refocuses the project requirements from asking students to discover the solution to a problem through experimentation to asking students to reinvent a process. Reinvention seemed to apply more of the science content than other methods, and this surprised the author.
The third redesign, applying all the content in time, addresses the problem of overly heavy cognitive load when too much time elapses between content learning and content integration and application. The old way was to learn content and then participate in a project over time that led to a “capstone” event. The recommended redesign is to divide projects into pieces that successively build upon the knowledge and experience gained in each previous “piece.”