Frequently Asked Questions

Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a learner-centered instructional method in which students learn by actively and collaboratively solving authentic real-world problems. In PBL, the instructor serves as a facilitator or consultant, guiding the students through the problem solving process and providing instruction on an “as needed” basis. In PBL, students actively participate in their own learning by solving real-world problems in which the parameters are ill defined and ambiguous, as they are in the workplace.

Unlike traditional instruction in which students attend lectures, solve well-defined end-of-chapter homework problems, and engage in highly structured “cookbook” type laboratory activities, PBL is open-ended and contextualized as opposed to student learning which is driven by the problem itself. With PBL, students’ learn the process of structured problem solving in addition to course content by engaging in a systematic and recursive process that begins with problem analysis. During the initial analysis, students must carefully and methodically dissect the problem to identify what is known and unknown, reflect on prior knowledge to identify knowledge gaps, situational constraints and other pertinent problem features, to properly frame the problem, and establish criteria for a successful solution. Once the problem has been properly framed, students engage in self-directed learning, setting specific learning goals and a timeframe to seek out the knowledge and skills needed to solve the problem. After the required information has been acquired, students reconvene with their teams to brainstorm possible solutions. Upon agreeing on a potential solution, students test their ideas to validate their solution. If the solution generated does not adequately address the established criteria for success, the process is then repeated. A hands-on component can often supplement this process but unlike project based learning, it is not necessary to have laboratory equipment to solve a PBL problem.

Whenever possible the NEBHE PBL instructional materials called “Challenges” provide hands-on activities that use simple and/or common lab materials to illustrate the principles of the Challenge. Examples of hands-on activity projects can be found in the Teacher Resources Technical Document located in the Teacher Resources section of each Challenge (Note: This section is password protected. [Passwords can be obtained upon request by contacting pblprojects@nebhe.org.] However, the Challenges can be taught without hands-on activities, allowing students to learn about complex and expensive systems without needing to experience them first hand.

The PBL Projects of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) are PHOTON PBL (DUE #0603143), STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) PBL (DUE #0903051) and Advanced Manufacturing PBL (DUE #1204941) funded sequentially by the National Science Foundation Advanced Technical Education (NSF ATE) program since 2006.

Each PBL Project has developed a set of interdisciplinary, multimedia real-world Challenges (case studies) in partnership with industry. The web-based Challenges are designed for implementation in secondary and post-secondary science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. A flexible approach to implementation allows instructors to introduce students to PBL at various levels of difficulty and over a period of time best suited for their individual class.

The PBL Projects team has provided professional development training for instructors and administrators in the use of the PBL Challenges. Please contact Principal Investigator, Fenna Hanes, to learn more about professional development opportunities at email address fhanes@nebhe.org and telephone number 617-357-9620 x129.

Yes! The PBL Projects’ PHOTON PBL, STEM PBL and the forthcoming Advanced Manufacturing PBL Challenges are all free to use. The Challenges and associated resources can be found on the Challenge page. Sections of the Challenges are password protected. [Passwords can be obtained upon request by contacting pblprojects@nebhe.org.]
The PBL Projects cover a breadth of content in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Specifically, the PHOTON PBL project has developed Challenges in optics and photonics. The STEM PBL Challenges cover sustainable technologies in the areas of energy efficient lighting, green chemistry, solar power, sustainable agriculture, watershed management and wind power, while the Advanced Manufacturing PBL Challenges focus on practices in fields such as microchip manufacturing, semiconductors, nanotechnology, sheet metal fabrication, medical devices and advanced quality systems. All of the Challenges are multidisciplinary, requiring investigation into two or more STEM areas in order to come to a solution.
The Challenges include both very specific and very broad problems. For example, laser stripping the coating from a fine copper wire is a specific problem that must be solved as part of a larger system (implantable blood glucose monitor), while specifying community-based solutions to the issue of urban storm water management is an example of a problem with a broad range of solutions. In every case, however, the problems are multidisciplinary, requiring students to think beyond the limits of traditional “back of the chapter” problems. Note: A table classification of the difficulty and number of solutions for each Challenge is provided here linked off the main Challenge page and additionally as a PDF.
The Challenges developed by NEBHE’s PHOTON PBL and STEM PBL have been aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for math and English language arts. Mathematics standards are Challenge-specific. All of the PBL Projects Challenges are aligned to ELA CCSS for Speaking and Listening, STEM Literacy and STEM writing, including the new AM PBL Challenges. Links to the alignment tables are available on the PBL Projects “Challenges” landing page  and in the Teacher Resources section accompanying each PBL Challenge. The tables contain links to the full text of each standard, as well as notes on text selection. The tables can be used online or downloaded in Microsoft Excel format. [The current AM PBL project’s Challenges are in the process of being aligned to the CCSS format.]

To support students with a range of mathematics backgrounds, the PHOTON PBL and STEM PBL Challenges have also been aligned to video lessons and practice problems from Khan Academy, a free multimedia educational resource. Khan Academy alignment for the new AM PBL Challenges is forthcoming.
Moving forward, all of the PBL Projects’ Challenges will be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The AM PBL Challenges will also be aligned to the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) criteria.

Each PBL Challenge has been aligned with national math, science and technology standards to allow for easy integration into standardized curricula (See Q6). While curricula may vary from state to state and even within the same school district, how the PBL Challenges are implemented in the classroom is usually up to the discretion of the teacher and/or the particular school district. Each PBL Challenge also contains a series of “Implementation Stories” (case studies) as part of the teacher resource section. These case studies provide examples of how Challenges can be adopted to different classroom settings. Each Challenge contains stories from teachers in a wide range of grade levels and courses.
Assessment tools are located in the Teacher Resources section of the Challenge. [Passwords can be obtained upon request by contacting pblprojects@nebhe.org.]

See article on assessing student learning in the Spring 2011 issue of STEM PBL newsletter.

The time required to teach the same competencies as in a traditional lecture-based learning environment may vary depending on the level of support provided to students by the instructor. Remember, the goal of PBL is to teach problem solving and critical thinking, as well as a specific competency or procedure. With PBL, the desired competencies are learned in the context of solving a real-world problem, which is very different from teaching a specific topic in isolation of the real-world constraints that tend to “muddy the waters.” Learning is real, and the competencies developed are deeper and more complex, likened to the skills of an expert as compared to a novice and more transferrable to new and novel situations.

In the Teacher Resources section of each Challenge under the heading Assessment Strategies is a Teamwork Assessment instrument. This validated instrument provides students with the opportunity to perform peer assessment on their teammates. Using this instrument, students rate their teammates as well as themselves in four performance categories using a 5-point Likert scale. There is additional room for comments. Upon completion of a Challenge, students are asked to complete the teamwork assessment and submit it to the instructor. The individual assessments are kept confidential. If a student is not pulling his/her weight, this instrument will catch it. Tip: For best results, inform students when the Challenge is introduced that a teamwork assessment will follow.

To ensure that students receive a holistic education in a specific content area, there are three separate assessment tools designed to capture students’ content knowledge, conceptual knowledge, and problem solving ability. The content knowledge assessment uses three levels of content-related questions ranging from simple multiple-choice questions to more difficult closed-ended problems to more open-ended and thought provoking problems. The content knowledge assessment can be modified to meet the needs of the individual instructor and/or curriculum. The conceptual knowledge assessment uses concept mapping to assess students’ conceptual understanding of the main topics or concepts presented in the Challenge and their understanding of the relationships between concepts. This is a powerful method used to bridge the gap between interrelated concepts and principles typically taught in isolation of each other in traditional lecture-based instruction. Finally, the problem solving ability assessment captures the all-important processes students used in solving the Challenge problem. This represents the most authentic form of assessment because it taps into students’ cognitive and metacognitive processes through the process of reflection.

The PHOTON and STEM PBL Challenges have already been field-tested. The AM PBL Challenges are undergoing field-testing. Instructors selected to participate in the PBL Projects are expected to field-test up to two PBL Challenges in their classrooms. Participating instructors will submit an instructor survey and narrative to the project team, as well as student surveys for each field-tested Challenge. Any instructor implementing a PBL Challenge is encouraged to submit the above materials to the project team in order to aid curriculum evaluation. These surveys can be obtained from project staff. Please email pblprojects@nebhe.org for a copy.

Similarly, the project team collects and utilizes evaluation materials from professional development workshops, and conducts focus groups and individual interviews with secondary and postsecondary participants in its projects. Findings from the aforementioned evaluations are used to develop reports, academic papers and other dissemination materials to share with the public and the project’s funder.

The PBL Challenges have been used in middle schools, comprehensive and technical high schools, community colleges, and four-year colleges and universities across the United States. To date, the PBL Challenges have been used in more than 60 academic institutions in 17 U.S. states, and the list continues to grow. For a full-list of partners and institutions, please visit our Partners page.
Professional Development Consulting In the Use of the PBL Challenges
NEBHE offers “Introduction to PBL” professional development consulting to groups of educators. Educators engaged in a NEBHE workshop complete several PHOTON PBL, STEM PBL and/or AM PBL Challenges in teams to introduce and acclimatize them to the PBL method. After experiencing PBL as if they are students, educators are introduced to the teacher resources and assessment strategies for implementing PBL.

Once educators are familiar with the PBL Challenge format, and have used Challenges with their students, the next step is a “Make Your Own Challenge” workshop to then introduce the PBL Challenge Design Guide (see below) and template to create their own PBL Challenges with industry or community partners. Educators are coached through researching and identifying potential problems that both address the learning outcome requirements of their courses and engage students in meaningful real-world problem solving.

The “Introduction to PBL” and/or “Make Your Own Challenge” workshops, as well as customized versions, can be delivered, for a fee, for a single institution or district, or as an open workshop for multiple institutions and/or school districts. To learn more please contact AM PBL Principal Investigator Fenna Hanes at fhanes@nebhe.org or 617-533-9529.

PBL Challenge Design Guide
Over the past six years, NEBHE’s PBL Projects team has provided professional development in the use of its PBL Challenges to hundreds of STEM educators across the country. But teaching teachers to use any existing PBL Challenges provides limited opportunities for students to engage in real-world problem solving, thus reducing the enormous potential to develop the critical thinking and problem solving skills that are desperately needed in the 21st century workplace.

To help teachers move beyond the use of NEBHE’s PBL curriculum materials, Co-Principal Investigators Massa and Donnelly created a PBL Challenge Design Guide focused on helping teachers identify “good” PBL problems and create their own PBL Challenges that align with their specific learning outcomes and assessment requirements. The guide was initially field-tested in a graduate level Technology and Engineering Education (TEE) course in PBL methods at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) during the spring of 2012.

The PBL Projects team has conducted a number of professional development workshops aimed at teaching educators how to develop their own PBL Challenges. Workshops were held at Boston University, CCSU, Kennebec Valley Community College, the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB) annual High Schools That Work conference in Charlotte, N.C., the Education and Training in Optics and Photonics conference in Porto, Portugal, and the request for workshops continues to grow.

Consulting Case Study
Integrating PBL into Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC) Energy Services and Technology (EST) Project

Partnering with the mechanical services industry and the New England Board of Higher Education, Kennebec Valley Community College’s (KVCC) Energy Services and Technology (EST) project is focused on producing more qualified technicians to meet the growing demand from Maine-based employers who need employees that possess a combination of cross-cutting technical skills and the ability to problem-solve complex, systemic issues. KVCC received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education-funded program (NSF ATE DUE# 1204933) to develop a new associate degree program in EST.

The PBL Projects team consulted with KVCC EST faculty members to assist them, using the PBL Challenge Design Guide, to create their own PBL Challenges for four new five-credit lab-based courses that are part of the new program. New Challenges were developed and continue to be implemented in the following EST courses: PBL 101 – Plumbing Fundamentals, PBL 201 – Advanced Plumbing, HAC 101 – Heating Fundamentals, and HAC 201 – Advanced Heating.

For more information about consulting options, contact AM PBL Principal Investigator Fenna Hanes at fhanes@nebhe.org.

During NEBHE’s STEM PBL project funded by NSF ATE, Co-Principal Investigators (Co-PI’s) at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) adapted pre- and in-service technology and engineering education courses to include pedagogical lessons in PBL. Students enrolled in the resulting Teaching Technology and Engineering Education (TE-399) pre-service undergraduate course and the STEM PBL Applications for Science and Technology Teachers (TE-506) in-service graduate course experience PBL as a student in a STEM classroom. Pre- and in-service instructors are formed into teams to solve selected STEM PBL and PHOTON PBL Challenges in order to receive a hands-on education in how to implement PBL into their own classrooms.

Through participation in the CCSU courses, pre- and in-service technology and engineering instructors:
• Learn how to incorporate problem-based learning in the classroom by using NEBHE’s PBL Challenges.
• Experience PBL as students tasked with solving a PBL Challenge.
• Receive a comprehensive overview of student and teacher resources developed by the project.
• Learn field-tested assessment and implementation strategies for PBL.
• Receive access to the PBL Challenge instructional materials.
• Gain access to a PBL listserv for continued networking with the PBL project team and PBL practitioners.

The new Advanced Manufacturing PBL Challenges will be integrated into both courses. As a capstone project for the course, students will use the pedagogical strategies and technical skills they acquire throughout the semester to develop original multimedia PBL Challenges related to advanced manufacturing topics of their choosing. The capstone projects will help to build and sustain an online library of PBL instructional resources designed by in-service STEM educators.

In addition, STEM teacher educators who were selected to participate in the Advanced Manufacturing PBL Institute will learn how to:

• Introduce the Teaching Technology and Engineering Education pre-service undergraduate PBL course in place at CCSU into their own institution’s teacher education programs.
• Implement the STEM PBL Applications for Science and Technology Teachers graduate course in place at CCSU into their own institution’s teacher education programs.

For more information on the CCSU PBL pedagogy courses, please contact Co-PI James DeLaura, chair, Technology and Engineering Education Department, CCSU, at delaura@ccsu.edu.

It is best to introduce problem-based learning into any curriculum as early as possible so that students can grasp the problem solving process early on. Students introduced to PBL in introductory courses often adapt the concepts learned in PBL to all of their courses, both technical and non-STEM related. Many students who have used PBL have expressed that they continue to apply the concepts, tools and methods they learned while solving a PBL Challenge to many other aspects of their lives.

Although the PBL Challenges are technology-based, each Challenge is modifiable to fit a particular classroom’s needs, allowing even the most seemingly technical Challenges to be utilized in introductory courses. Please contact the project team at pblprojects@nebhe.org with questions on how to adjust the PBL Challenges to fit your curriculum.

In assessing student performance in PBL, it’s important that the students learn to ask the right questions. I require my that students explain how and why the information they are researching addresses the problem – before they start their research. If they can’t explain why the info is important, it probably is not.

Most students will immediately go to Google to try and find a solution without first thinking through what they are looking for. This is the beauty of the Whiteboards. When completing the “What do I need to learn?” column in the Problem Analysis Whiteboard, I would ask them to explain to me why that information is important and how will it be used. This is the role of the facilitator. This will help the students focus their efforts on finding relevant information that they can justify in their final report. Otherwise they will submit hundreds of pages of useless material…I know…I see it all the time. The goal is to get them to think strategically – to synthesize the information they find and summarize how and why it was used to solve the problem.

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