Developing an Entry-Level Chemistry PBL: Creating a Tool Box for Success


Today’s post is an update on project planning I am currently doing with Ms. S, a second year chemistry teacher. When I last left off with Ms. S and Ms. C, I requested they both consider what standards they wanted their projects to have students to do some deep-diving. In wonderful fashion, Ms. S did just that for both a fall project idea and a spring project idea. We spent our planning time work on her fall idea. Using several Buck Institute resources (, we started the design process, which to be fair is an overwhelming venture the first time you take it on as a teacher. Why so overwhelming? PBL requires considering a far more variables than typical lesson planning does, and a teacher must plan several contingencies, which amounts to a stressful process where a teacher does not always know where to begin the first time they design a PBL. Like many bad memories, I tend to forget how difficult my first year of doing pervasive PBL really was on me mentally and physically. As I try to coach others like Ms. S, I try my best to recall those feelings of being tired and overwhelmed. Empathy is important when guiding other educators into uncharted waters–remembering we’re in it together keeps me humble and helps me give other teachers perspective. Still, empathy only goes so far. A teacher still needs a firm launching point, so I used BIE resources and a few in-house documents to create a project planning packet.

Step 1:

Project Assessment Map

Sample Project Assessment Map

To build the planning packet, I tried to consider where any teacher would want to start and what helps promote good project design. Again, without standards to work from, my packet would be useless, so the next step after standard selection is asking the questions, “What do I want students to create/do?” and “How can I monitor their progress?” Hence, the first document in the packet is a document with brackets (think March Madness-style) that on one end asks for what the product will be, the middle requests what standards are being explored, and the other end provides space to indicate formative assessments that will be used along the way to approach each standard. I justified this document being first because it helps keep the end of the project in mind and gives a clear visual of how a teacher would go from deliverables to product while adhering to the standards being explored. Behind the bracketed sheet is a model of what filling it out could look like.

Step 2:

Rubric for Rubrics

Next is a document BIE calls it’s ‘Rubric for Rubrics’. It provides a teacher planning a PBL to anticipate how they want the rubric for the project approach everything from writing to student involvement in making rubrics. While the tool is not immediately useful in some cases, it is a nice resource to revisit when a teacher starts to build a project rubric.

Step 3:

Project Design Overview

Now comes the project design. At this point, Ms. S and I have explored her potential end product–which makes us consider resources she’ll need as well who the audience for the project is–and she has tied her standards to roughly six different deliverables. Our assessment map now gives us a collection of information we can build our driving question, project summary, and entry event from. The BIE’s project design tool can come across as cumbersome, which is why I do not like to start with it. Ms. S appeared much more comfortable developing a driving question and project summary after doing the mapping first. The document also provides space to really tease out individual student deliverables versus group deliverables as well as how they inform the whole project. Really, the design document holds both students and teachers accountable to the project’s road map. Writing from experience, it is easy to get lost in the midst of a project. This tool helps curtail that a bit.

Step 4:

Project Calendar

Next up is maybe the most valuable document for teacher and student alike–the project calendar. This document is particularly difficult to use without having mapped and teased out the design of the project. When Ms. S and I looked at our first two drafts of the other documents and then considered the length of her unit, we determined the project would be three weeks, knowing a few days may need to be built in for wiggle room. We then started to determine when she would need certain deliverables and when certain events would need to take place to keep the project moving. While this calendar will likely change as the project fills out, this provides a ‘top’ view of the project where linear time is accounted for and  a teacher and student can clearly see what is expected and when.

Step 5:

Critical Friends


Projects can meet a quick demise when there is no plan for students to reflect on their processes regularly and often. Like the very real world of any of our jobs, managing a project is difficult. Assuming students know how to manage their time or how to reflect on their work is dangerous for a teacher. The fact a teacher may not have such protocols in place for their day-to-day classroom may go to show how foreign reflection is in many classroom spaces. I’m generalizing, of course, but I do think many teachers struggle to build in reflective practices into their lesson plans and classroom space. To help with this concern, I introduced Ms. S to the SCRUM method, used often in product development, as well as the BIE’s critical friends protocol and Charette protocol. All of these provide students opportunities to manage their projects with the teachers help all while building evaluation skills. The friendliest of the three is probably critical friends; however, SCRUM is easy enough to adopt. Charette is best for more experienced PBL groups that are familiar with one another and have report.

Step 6:

Project Design Checklist

Finally, we used a simply but invaluable tool that’s value really can’t be appreciated until you’ve done the heavy lifting above–the project design checklist. BIE provides a simple form that quickly assesses the current state of a projects design and preparation, making future planning easier to focus with clear goals established.

After about forty-five minutes of talking through the documents and scribbling notes and ideas, Ms. S appeared to walk away excited about the project and how it was shaping up. We also know we still have about four areas on that checklist to target and address, so the next time we meet we’ll hit the ground running with the project design again.

If there is any takeaway someone might get from reading through today’s post, it might be project design and planning is important, but also time consuming. That does not mean it is a time waster though! On the contrary, Ms. S’s delight of where we left in our planning demonstrates the work was well worth the effort. The key might be to acknowledge good PBL design takes time and genuine collaboration. Building a project in isolation is miserable.Don’t do it! Find another innovative soul on your campus (they DO NOT have to be from your subject area) and simply brainstorm and maybe use the tools I shared above.

Next up is working with Ms. C on oceanography. I should have that update early next week. Assuming, Ms. S wants to share her project design once she has finished, I will post it here in case I have any curious chemistry teachers out there. I know this post only shows BIG process and not the minutiae of what was planned.

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