Project Approach and STEM Learning for ALL

Read the blog post and learn how to use project approach to support inclusive early STEM learning! 

By Sallee Beneke

Project work is an approach to learning that can support inclusion of diverse learners. A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about, usually undertaken by a group of children within a class. Unlike many teacher-initiated components of the curriculum, the goal of a project is for children to learn more about a high interest topic, rather than to find right answers to questions posed by a teacher. It capitalizes on children’s natural interest and motivation and the satisfaction that comes from becoming an expert on a topic. It also provides them a common focus.

Projects are in-depth investigations that are typically about six to eight weeks long. The course of the investigation is driven by children’s natural interest and motivation. Similar to the scientific inquiry cycle (Worth & Grollman, 2003, p. 19), children begin with a set of questions about the topic, predict or make hypotheses of possible answers to their questions, proceed to collect data by making observations and engaging in investigations, and describe/document their findings.

Over the course of a project children act as researchers or explorers that investigate a topic first-hand by examining artifacts, interviewing experts, doing field work, and researching in books and online. Children represent their learning in a variety of ways and teachers can track their growing understanding of the topic by observing and documenting these representations. For example, a teacher might note that at the beginning of a project on butterflies, a child draws the child’s body as a single shape. But, over time she can observe increased depth in the child’s understanding when the drawings begin to include a head, abdomen, and thorax. A rich classroom environment can provide many opportunities for children to represent their growing understanding of a topic (e.g., through their dramatic play in the housekeeping or block areas, conversations). Planning of next steps in an investigation is negotiated between the teacher and the children. One question leads to another, so a major role of the teacher in project work is to anticipate the experiences and opportunities that will satisfy children’s curiosity about the topic and provoke further interest.

Using project approach in early STEM. learning supports inclusion because it is collaborative rather than competitive, and it emphasizes children’s abilities, rather than their disabilities. As children work together to find out about a topic and create group constructions that represent their knowledge, community is strengthened and IEP and IFSP goals can be met effectively through meaningful, naturalistic opportunities. It also increases opportunities for teachers to adapt activities for a range of abilities, reduces the need for guidance techniques, and has a positive impact on play levels (Beneke & Ostrosky, 2015).

Selecting a useful topic for projects is an important key to getting project work started. Abstract themes (e.g., feelings, the five senses, nutrition, or weather) are intangible and will not support project work. Concrete things (e.g., leaf) or groups of things (e.g., forest) that children can explore with all their senses are more useful. Topics that meet the following criteria are likely to be successful:

  1. The topic is directly observable in the children’s own environments (real world).
  2. It is within the experiences of most children in the group.
  3. Firsthand direct investigation is feasible and not potentially dangerous.
  4. Local resources (field sites and experts) are favorable and readily accessible.
  5. It has good potential for representation in a variety of media (e.g., role play, construction, writing, multidimensional graphic organizers).
  6. Parental participation and contributions are likely, and parents can become involved.
  7. It is sensitive to local culture, as well as culturally appropriate in general.
  8. It is potentially interesting to many of the children or represents an interest that adults consider worthy of developing in children.
  9. It is related to curriculum goals and standards of the school or district.
  10. It provides ample opportunity to apply basic skills (depending on the age of the children).
  11. It is optimally specific—not too narrow and not too broad (e.g., a study of the teacher’s own dog or “buttons” at the narrow end, and the topic of “music” or “the seasons” at the broad end). It is interesting to the teacher. (Beneke, Ostrosky, & Katz, 2019).

References

Beneke, S. & Ostrosky, M. M. (2015) Effects of the project approach on preschoolers with diverse abilities. Infants & Young Children.

Beneke, S., Ostrosky, M. M., & Katz, L. (2019). The Project Approach for All Learners. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Worth, Karen & Grollman, Sharon. (2003). Worms, shadows, and whirlpools: Science in the early childhood classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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