What is PBL?
Problem Based Learning (PBL) is an educational method that engages students in inquiry-based “real world” problem-solving. Used extensively in medical education since the 1970s, PBL is an instructional approach that teaches students “what to do when you don’t know what to do” by collaboratively solving authentic open-ended problems. While already adopted in fields including business and law, it is only beginning to emerge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
PBL is an exciting and challenging alternative to traditional lecture-based instruction, providing students with learning experiences that engage them directly in the types of problems and situations they will encounter in the 21st century workplace. Students of PBL become active participants in their own learning as they encounter new and unfamiliar learning situations where problem parameters are ill-defined and ambiguous —just like in the real world.
PBL can be implemented in many ways but there are elements common to all:
- Problems are presented before any formal instruction; the problem itself drives the learning of new information.
- Students work collaboratively in teams to frame the problem, research necessary information and propose and present solutions.
- The instructor acts as a facilitator who provides instruction to teams as needed and guides students as necessary to keep them on track.
Research shows that compared with traditional lecture-based instruction, PBL improves:
- Student understanding and retention of ideas.
- Critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
- Motivation and learning engagement.
- The ability to work in teams.
- The ability to successfully apply skills and knowledge to new situations.
The PBL Challenge model is designed to scaffold student learning by acclimating students to PBL through their own learned experience. Instructors have the ability to choose an implementation approach ranging from highly structured(
What Students Say About the PBL Challenges
PBL was a very rewarding experience for me. It was way different from normal learning. I felt like an actual scientist instead of just a student in high school. If PBL was an every day or weekly activity it would help kids a lot, because when you are just sitting at a desk and teachers are giving you information it’s really boring, but when I have to find the information on my own it sticks with me.”–Taft Union High School, CA
Now, I feel that manufacturing isn’t just about making/building products, it is about quality, efficiency, productivity, and also taking the products that are already manufactured and redesign[ing] them with the latest technology.”–Taconic High School, MA
Initially, I was overwhelmed by all the technical aspects considering I am not from any sort of science/math/tech background, and didn’t really feel I had any solutions to contribute. But the combined effort and brainpower of the whole group was really helpful and I think I learned a lot.”–Three Rivers Community College, CT
I enjoyed the problem-based aspect of everything. It got my mind thinking in a way I have never used it!”–Rhode Island College, RI
PBL teaches you what to do when you don’t know what to do. First, by process of elimination, you learn what you do know and then it gives you clear steps on how to go about researching the parts that you don’t know. The ‘Whiteboards’ helped me with time management, taught me what to do, when to do it, and helped me not to be afraid of a problem, to tackle a problem that I had never seen before and to come up with an answer that was at least close to the mark. That was very valuable.”–Springfield Technical Community College, MA
What Instructors Say About the PBL Challenges
It’s never too early for our students to begin problem-solving. By the time they’ve reached fifth grade, they’ve already started to learn the game of school—they’ve learned that if they just memorize some stuff, regurgitate it back on a piece of paper, they’re going to skate by and be fine. But if they’re given some kind of problem that requires them to come up with their own solution, that’s where they struggle.”–Sharon Center School, CT
Problem-based learning allows students an opportunity for collaboration and problem solving that will develop critical thinking skills, reading and research skills, argumentation and presentation skills. Awesome projects!”–CREC Magnet Middle School, CT
I enjoy using PBL in my classes because I can see how it gives the students a good framework to solving any problem they encounter. I like having the Whiteboards for the students to use as an organizer for all the information they need. I really enjoy watching the students present their solutions to the class. I have had a positive experience with the PBL Challenges and I plan on using and developing more of them in the future.”–Ponaganset High School, RI
Students seemed to like problem-based learning! They were engaged in solving the problem, and most pushed themselves and their teammates to better understand the issues. I found that they were nervous about defining the problem incorrectly at first, but that they got past this trepidation as they dug deeper into the possible solutions. I was impressed with the solutions the student teams developed.”–Stonehill College, MA
PBL forces us to slow down and get a lot more quality into our lesson, to dig deeper into the materials rather than get this thing done and move on to the next.”–Central Connecticut State University, CT
What Industry Partners Say About the PBL Challenges
Problem-based learning is such an important aspect of career development.It is something that is not fully utilized in the classroom setting since students don’t always understand how the practical aspects of what they are doing—like math—connect to what they will be doing in the workforce. Without PBL, that disconnect continues, and it also impedes the interest a lot of people might have to moving into certain careers. They might say ‘Well I am not good at math, so I can’t do that’, but when they understand how they’re connected, it might peak that level of interest and make them realize they can overcome some of the ideas they have of themselves.”–CEO, Sound Manufacturing, CT
Because we need good, quality technical personnel, anything that we can contribute to science education and particularly to local science and engineering education is valuable to us.”–Senior Director of Special Programs, Cirtec, MA
Our clients expect us to be strong problem-solvers and it’s important that our employees and our management system aligns to strong problem-solving.”–Manufacturing & Operations Director, Global Foundries (formerly IBM), VT
When I started here, we would approach problem-solving in a much different way than we do now—we would essentially jump to conclusions, jump to what we thought was the answer and sometimes the problems would re-occur because we really didn’t get to the true root cause. By following the structure of problem-solving, it forces the discipline…to gather data. It’s really a powerful process that we’ve seen work exceptionally well. I wish I had it in my career thirty years ago.”–Core Team Member, Global Foundries (formerly IBM), VT
PBL actively engages students in the problem-solving process with problems that have real applications and many times aren’t as well structured as end of chapter problems found in lecture-based textbooks…Once our company learned of STEM PBL, we realized it was the vehicle to provide problem-based learning to a larger audience of students without compromising our company’s productivity. Collaborating with STEM PBL is an investment in the future. As these students complete their education and enter the work force, their ability to critically think and solve real-world problems will be an asset for any company.”–Technology Company, STEM PBL