Bringing It All Together
Problem-Based Learning and Interdisciplinary Approaches
Science focuses on inquiry and problem solving. There are strong advocates for an approach in science education called problem-based learning (PBL), which emphasizes students working in groups on open-ended problems. Students can play a role in defining the scope of the problem and then, in a largely self-directed fashion, conduct literature research and laboratory research to explore the problem and obtain answers to specific questions arising from their analysis of the problem. Problem-based learning is an excellent way for students to practice authentic scholarship in science even if they don’t have the opportunity to do lab experiments. The most important role for the instructor is probably in helping to define the problem at an appropriate scale and then, as the process unfolds, to provide guidance and feedback within a framework that sets up milestones and norms—such as regular team meetings and presentations on progress. Practitioners generally think in terms of shifting from the role of a lecturer delivering content to a coach for guided inquiry.
Many instructors are under pressure to cover a stipulated curriculum and to prepare students for high-stakes testing. However, it is likely that there’s an appropriate place in the curriculum to spend at least some time using the PBL approach. Although the approach may not cover content the way that some curricula stipulate, it can be very strong in developing literacy skills and also in process and practice of science skills, which are important components of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.
Problem-based learning scenarios tend to feature broader, more practical, or everyday types of science problems. Thus, they are more naturally interdisciplinary both across the sciences, but also potentially across science, math, history, social studies, and language arts. For example, students might be interested in a question such as, Where do dogs come from? This could lead to related and more specific questions, such as, How many breeds of dog are there? When and where in the world did specific breeds arise? How did each breed acquire its specific characteristics? And, finally, Why are dogs so much more loyal than cats? The answer that “dogs come from wolves” will likely be an important conclusion that is part of the findings that student teams will support with photos, with genetic evidence, in writing, and in various presentations. Different teams can choose and be guided to look into historical sources on various dog breeds. Other teams may focus on genetic evidence and evolutionary conclusions. Another group might become interested in dog behavior and a comparison with the behaviors of wild wolves. The students will discover literature on dog genetics; on the history, paleontology, and anthropology of domestication; and on diseases of dogs. They will also find numerous stories and poems about dogs. The role of the instructor is to foster effective teamwork and to help guide teams in useful directions while providing project milestones. Potential topics for PBL can be made to be more curriculum directed or almost completely open ended: a disease, a particular mineral, or the physics of sports are examples. The main challenge is in framing the guiding question or problem well as the project is initiated.