Challenge Based Learning - Making Projects Meaningful

One summer I attended a conference where I was introduced to Challenge Based Learning. As a science teacher, I was intrigued by the idea of asking such a broad question and having students design a pathway to make a difference in some way. I had done classroom projects before, but this framework helped me really see how to push projects to the next level, having kids take action.

My first big attempt at CBL started in middle school, where I posed the question: How can we make a positive impact on an environmental issue? My middle schoolers were all over the place, but we noticed a central theme around animals. Students suggested focusing on endangered animals which honed in our thoughts and ideas. We created the Essential Question together: How can we help protect endangered species?  Several students had mentioned a field trip to the zoo to see the endangered animals in person.  We reached out to the Dallas Zoo’s Education Department and started what turned into a 6 year ongoing partnership with our school.  

This first year, students wanted to write a book to educate people on small things they could do to protect the endangered animals. We decided to focus on the ones that were at the Dallas Zoo and were able to meet with the zookeepers for each animal. We also reached out on Twitter to several organizations, such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to get more information. At the culmination of this project, our class was invited to the Zoo to share the book with patrons and employees. The book, Through Their Eyes, currently has over 23,000 downloads, proving that with meaningful relevance and an authentic audience, students really can gain the attention of humans in the world around them.  

Image of the the cover of the book featuring a Sumatran Tiger

After this initial year with CBL, I knew I could not go back. I had to use the framework each year to see where students would go with their ideas. I loved seeing their ideas, investigating their questions, and finding ways to connect to my learning targets in the classroom.  This allowed for more authentic classroom work because my students were more connected with “why are we learning this?”

A couple of years ago, I used this approach in my gardening class. Our essential question to start the year was “How can we improve our school garden space to make it more environmentally friendly and encourage more visitors, from more people in our community, to native animals and wildlife.” The kids LOVED this challenge. This happened to be during our COVID school year where half of my class was learning remotely and never set foot in the garden. However, they contributed just as much as the in-person kids and the collaboration between them was amazing!  We ended up focusing mostly on bringing pollinators into the garden which required us to research native plants that would attract what we wanted. We also tried to increase our food production so that more could be donated to the local food pantry.  

These students were highlighted by Apple News in the story, Sowing New Seeds.

Last year, I was teaching anatomy and physiology at the high school level. The CBL framework was even more successful with this group of older learners. We started the year by looking at how we could make a difference in the healthcare field. Students engaged with the big idea and decided that we should “level the playing field” by making education accessible to those in more remote areas. Through our student-led investigations we created a book, ‘The Heart’, to inspire students in a village in Sudan to pursue their studies in medicine. As another part of our solution we donated iPads, medical supplies, and stethoscopes to help the teachers at the school inspire their students even further. 

The heart book cover, image of heart and title.

Challenge Based Learning has made such a positive impact on my classroom. My kids know their voices matter and that they can make a difference each day. I can’t wait to see what is next - both for them AND the community that they impact!

Tagged in: Life Sciences, Challenge Based Learning (CBL)

All Comments

Posted on September 02, 2022

Wow, you have implemented such impactful lessons for students with CBL. The process you put in place will really stick with students. Thanks for sharing your story, a wonderful model!

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