August 29

Hold off on the Syllabus!: Creating Community in a STEM PBL Classroom


It’s tempting, especially in a math or science classroom, to dive right into the syllabus on Day 1. However, that’s likely what students will be hearing all day in their other classes. What might it look like to dive right into thinking and learning? You could show them how a positive classroom community works in the context of the work students will be doing. Some of you may be thinking, “There’s so much to teach!” and, “We need to get into the basics of scientific method and math review!” However, there are multiple ways to accomplish these goals while also understanding who students are as learners and what strengths and knowledge they bring to the classroom.

In those first few weeks, you can dive into the necessary learning while also attending to these 5 “Rs”:

  • Relationships: Commit to learning the students’ names and helping them call each other by name within the first day or two. Use name tags, name tents, photo grid class lists, and purposeful activities to assist with this. Understand students’ interests, fears, and strengths as it relates to the discipline you teach. Reveal some of your interests to students early on so they see your multidimensionality.
  • Routines: Be clear about the way things are done in your class by modeling, practicing, and consistently acting out routines in your class. When students know the expectations for lab clean up, for completing the warm-up activity as they enter, and for whole class discussions, the class transitions will move smoothly by the second or third week.
  • Review: It’s ok to review concepts and skills as needed in the first couple of weeks of school, but as much as possible, try to contextualize it within your current project. Also, be mindful to keep student status in check as those who may require additional review can be easily stigmatized by other students. Therefore, providing a mini lesson on measurement, the components of an atom, or science safety can serve as “just in time” instruction as well as a brief review during a PBL rather than before.
  • Roles: Think about how you may want to use roles in the class to distribute leadership and provide everyone with responsibility. Will you use new roles specific to each PBL, or will you use roles that rotate each week or month (materials manager, facilitator, questioner, recorder)? Will you use thinking roles (skeptic, checker, innovator, harmonizer)?
  • Rigorous learning: Help students dive right into thinking and learning by structuring learning experiences that motivate, excite, and engage them from the outset. Provide an activity like the Black Box Mystery, an engineering challenge, or graphing class preferences on the first day. An activity that promotes cooperative learning, reviews skills, and leaves students feeling both confident and competent is ideal.

After spending time on these 5 “Rs” of classroom community, your students will be primed to engage in PBL work. Of course, you will always add more to their repertoire of cooperative, academic, and relational skills, but providing this foundation will help your PBL units roll out smoothly without much front loading and review. Best of luck to you as you begin your year, and for those of you who have been in session for a few weeks now, some of these strategies can still be applicable!


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