STEM PBL Overview

The STEM PBL Project developed problem-based learning (PBL) instructional resources and provided professional development activities in STEM subjects with a focus on sustainable technologies. NEBHE’s previous NSF/ATE funded projects focused on optics and photonics.


The project goal was to increase the number of job-ready STEM workers by engaging high school and college students with challenging learning materials and innovative teaching methods.


When working through the PBL Challenges, students become more prepared for the real world by working in teams to solve an authentic technological workplace problem where multiple solutions are possible. The instructor facilitates and acts as consultant as students balance technology, budget and time constraints to devise and test a solution.


The STEM PBL Project developed and implemented:

  • Multimedia industry-based PBL instructional materials for STEM disciplines, called Challenges.
  • A professional development workshop and an online course to teach educators about PBL.
  • A college course in problem-based instructional methods for middle and high school pre-service teachers.
  • Research on the efficacy of PBL in STEM education.


What is problem-based learning (PBL)?

Problem-based learning teaches a problem-solving model employing a cycle of problem analysis, independent research, brainstorming solutions, and testing solutions.



PBL Cycle



The STEM PBL Project (DUE #0903051) is funded by the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The STEM PBL Project


The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) was awarded a three-year curriculum and faculty professional development grant by the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in September 2009. The project, Problem Based Learning (PBL) for Sustainable Technology: Increasing the STEM Pipeline, aimed to increase the number of middle school and high school teachers plus two- and four-year college faculty skilled in the use of PBL in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The project was built upon the successes of the NSF/ATE-funded PHOTON PBL project, launched in 2006, in which eight multimedia PBL Challenges were developed and field-tested by more than 50 educators from secondary and post secondary institutions across the US.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted the number of jobs in STEM occupations would grow 47 percent by 2010, three times the rate of all other occupations. However, according to a recent NSF report, the United States is experiencing a chronic decline in homegrown STEM talent and is increasingly dependent upon foreign scholars to fill workforce and leadership voids. One reason for declining enrollment in many science and engineering technology programs is that students are often turned off by the way STEM subjects are typically taught — with traditional classroom lectures followed by cook-book style laboratories that provide little opportunity to actively engage in creative real-world problem solving. The STEM PBL project is developing a series of multimedia industry-based Challenges designed to stimulate problem based learning in the classroom to increase student retention in science and engineering technology programs.


PBL is an instructional approach that challenges students to learn how to learn through collaborative real-world problem solving. Research shows that compared with traditional lecture-based instruction, PBL improves student motivation, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, learning retention and the ability to adapt learning to new and novel situations—critical skills for the 21st century workplace.


Key challenges in implementing PBL center on a lack of:

  • instructional resources.
  • professional development opportunities for teachers and faculty in the principles and applications of PBL in STEM-related disciplines.


To address these challenges, the project:

  • developed six STEM-related multimedia PBL Challenges focused on sustainable technologies that are appealing to today’s students, such as alternative energy including solar and wind power, environmental protection, sustainable agriculture, and lighting.
  • created and implemented a fifteen-week web-based Principles and Applications of PBL professional development course for in-service STEM educators from across the US using the STEM PBL Challenges.
  • developed a replicable one-semester course in PBL instructional methods at Central Connecticut State University for pre-service (middle and high school) science and engineering technology teachers.
  • conducted research on the efficacy of PBL in STEM education and adaptation methods used by participating STEM educators.


The project team recruited more than 30 high school and college partner schools on a national level with a focus on districts that serve students from populations that are underrepresented in STEM disciplines. After field-testing of the Challenges was performed, the new curriculum continues to be disseminated to educators at high schools and colleges across the US through conference presentations, workshops, and this website.

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