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Creating Project-Based STEM Environments: The REAL Way

Jennifer Wilhelm, Ronald Wilhelm, and Merryn Cole
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Pete Johnson
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Project-based instruction (also called project-based learning) can trace its history back at least to the influential work of the educator John Dewey.  In project-based instruction, students investigate research questions of their own choosing related to the topic of instruction, with teachers providing guidance on the topic and the resources available, scaffolding and lessons as needed, and assessment on how well the underlying content was understood.  In the context of project-based instruction, “research questions” are those with answers unknown to the students, not necessarily those unknown to the research community.
This text presents one model for instructors to organize and deliver project-based instruction in STEM fields.  The text is organized in three parts.  Part I (“Key features of a project-based classroom”) provides a history of the development of project-based instruction in STEM fields (including a review of the work of Jo Boaler in mathematics classrooms), along with suggestions to teachers on designing and assessing student projects.  Part II (“Example project-based STEM units designed for the middle level”) gives two extended examples, Realistic Explorations in Astronomical Learning (REAL) and Chemical Reactions Engineered to Address Thermal Energy Situations (CREATES).  Part III (“Teacher implementation strategies, obstacles to overcome, and student learning successes”) addresses the implementation of project-based instruction and provides some additional examples of STEM projects designed by teachers.
The author of this review is not aware of any texts devoted to project-based instruction in mathematics at the college level.  While this text takes its examples from middle grades science projects, it is still likely to be of interest to MAA members with an interest in project-based learning.  The list of recommendations for effective project-based instruction on p. 19 (such as the selection of driving and “sub-driving” questions and providing opportunities to “confront or disrupt misconceptions”) are quite general and can be adapted to any STEM field, including mathematics.  Chapter 7, “Teacher voices,” is especially likely to be useful to those considering project-based instruction, as it includes a number of practical ideas regarding the costs and benefits of project-based instruction, implementation surprises, and others as classroom teachers experienced them.  The level and scope of the types of inquiries used in the detailed projects should also provide insight into the types of questions in which projects might effectively be used in the mathematics classroom.


Pete Johnson earned his M.S. in Mathematics from the University of Connecticut and his Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction (Mathematics Education) from the Pennsylvania State University.  He has taught mathematics at Eastern Connecticut State University for the last 19 years.  His professional interests include the teaching and learning of mathematics at the college level, mathematics courses for preservice elementary and secondary mathematics teachers, and beliefs and attitudes toward mathematics.  He is always happiest when he is with his wife and his two sons.