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Project SERVE Seminar on PBL

Project SERVE Seminar on PBL

Project SERVE Seminar on PBL

The second Noyce Project SERVE Seminar was held on January 30th at Doane University in Crete.  The topic was implementing Problem-based and Phenomena-based Learning in the science classroom. The presentation was given by Rod Diercks, Professor of Education at Doane University, and Christine Gustafson, a Nebraska high school science teacher and adjunct instructor with Doane’s College of Education.

We learned that Problem-based and Phenomena-based Learning strategies have many similarities (in addition to the fact that both are referred to as ‘PBL’, along with Project-based Learning).  Problem-based and Phenomena-based learning are both student-centered, and align with the next generation science standards adopted by the Nebraska Department of Education.  The new standards require a huge shift in curriculum development, lesson planning, and instruction. 

PBL contains a real-world context, and is intended to develop curiosity and questioning in students.  PBL strategies bridge to other content areas, helps students develop social skills, and changes the role of the teacher from “knowledge giver” to facilitator and guide in the learning process.  Because PBL takes real-world events or issues and has students question it and explore the complexities around it, students are not tied down to simply learning content from textbooks and lists of vocabulary terms.  Using critical thinking skills and their own desire to learn, students should develop a deeper, personal understanding of the event in ways that traditional classroom methodologies often lack.  This understanding can then be connected back to vocabulary and concept terms, and build on that strong foundation of understanding gained from the PBL process.

Rod Diercks opened the presentation with an overview of Problem-based Learning.  He stated that the process begins with identifying a specific real-world problem, something that is relevant and engaging to the learners.  An example Rod used was the problem of significant flooding every year in Bangladesh, potentially disrupting school attendance for months at a time.  We watched a trailer for the documentary “Easy Like Water” to become acquainted with the issues faced in that situation, and to observe how the problem was addressed through the implementation of floating schools. 

Rod then invited the seminar attendees to form small-groups to explore another problem-based scenario entitled, “Whose Baby Is It?”  (based on a true story, the multi-part exercise can be found at:  This exercise led to some great discussions around issues ranging from science, to the law, societal values and ethics.  The group interactions were lively, and the exercise helped us to see how the Problem-based Learning process could be used in the classroom.        

Chris Gustafson led the discussion related to Phenomena-based Learning, which she has been incorporating into her H.S. classroom the past few years.  She indicated that the two primary types of phenomena are Anchor Phenomena and Daily Phenomena.  An Anchor Phenomena is a complex observable event that can only be answered with multiple concept units, and these will connect back to multiple standards in the curriculum.  Chris emphasized that the answers to these questions were not “Google-able”, meaning that they don’t have simple answers that can be captured by the students.  This puts the responsibility on the student to explore and observe- applying science knowledge to “figure out” what is happening, rather than simply acquiring content to learn about the material that will ultimately be on a test.

Mrs. Gustafson went on to describe her practice of finding Daily Phenomena for her to students to explore.  These are lesson-level events, and represent smaller components related to the larger Anchor-based Phenomenon.  She finds a lot of examples of Daily Phenomena from internet resources, such as:   Chris also shared examples of the skill-building worksheets she uses in her classes, which include student descriptions of their observations, analysis of what they learned, and reflections on how easy/hard it was to complete the tasks.      

This second Noyce seminar was a great interactive learning experience.  Rod and Chris demonstrated the critical thinking and questioning skills needed to incorporate Problem-based and Phenomena-based Learning in our future classrooms.  PBL will play a huge role in my future as a science teacher, and this seminar will help me to begin using these learning systems in my classroom.   

To access the video of the 2nd Noyce Project SERVE Seminar, go to: