Building a PBL: Earth's Atmosphere


Project-based learning (PBL) has received a lot of attention recently. It replaces traditional lectures with student-driven collaboration to solve a real-world problem and share that solution with an audience. Motivated to defend their own views, students draw on lessons from several disciplines. Many times, students surprise teachers with research materials and product ideas.

One challenge in constructing engaging project-based lessons is finding good online materials. So let's take a look at some free resources and tools that can help a science teacher creating a PBL on Earth's atmosphere.

The process

pblcreditThe Inquiry-Based Disciplinary Literacy (IDL) Model provides unique student-driven opportunities to solve authentic problems in a collaborative environment and incorporates the Buck Institute for Education Essential PBL elements.

These are the five phases of the IDL model:

  • Ask a compelling question.
  • Gather and analyze sources.
  • Creatively synthesize claims and evidence.
  • Critically evaluate and revise.
  • Share, publish, and act.

An example for middle or high school science

To begin, provide an online environment for sharing ideas and posting final products. Wiki Spaces is one of my favorites, but many great tools exist.

Many teachers introduce projects by writing the driving question. Others, set parameters and then let students decide for themselves. In this example, we’ll focus on changes in the atmosphere and climate. Many states have standards on this topic; it’s also part of the United Nations sustainable development goals.

To introduce the project, start with a call to action such as:

We will learn about the impacts of human activities on the environment. We'll also learn about the gases that cause of air pollution, how they cycle through the atmosphere, and their effects on ecosystems. You will work in teams to create a compelling question about the atmosphere and answer it through a project-based inquiry process. Select a topic using standards.

Be sure your question includes one or more of these topics:

  1. Compare the composition and structure of Earth’s atmosphere, including differences in gasses, temperature, and pressure. Explain how the cycling of matter and greenhouse gases impacts atmospheric conditions and weather patterns.
  2. Design new technologies or methods for monitoring the atmosphere, maintaining air quality, and minimizing the human impact on the environment and biodiversity. Explain how the cycling of matter has affected life on Earth.
  3. Provide evidence of global warming and compare natural and human activities that influence air quality and the impact of those changes. Propose sustainable solutions to reduce pollution.

Ask a compelling question

Teaching a group of students to write compelling questions can be the most challenging part of the process. The checklist below offers some guidance. Remind groups that they need your approval before moving to the next step.

Gather and analyze sources

Students gather background information to support their answers. They must decide about the credibility and relevance of information. Field trips to universities and farms offer real-world background information. It’s also a fun way to gather artifacts or take pictures for their final products. To better guide students and save time, you may provide trusted resources for students to explore.

Curriculum Pathways offers standards-aligned lessons, interactive tools, a repository of data sets, and much more—at no cost.  Resources include lesson guides, learning objectives, answer keys, and detailed procedures.

Here's a quick list of Curriculum Pathways resources that could be incorporated in a PBL lesson on the earth's athmospere:

The Amazon Rainforest explores how global warming effects the region.

The Amazon Rainforest explores how global warming effects the region.

English Language Arts
Writing Navigator Series

VLab: Carbon Cycle
VLab: Stream Ecology
Analyzing Carbon-Based & Alternative Fuels
The Water Cycle
Analyzing Commercial Fishing Catches
Natural Resources: Petroleum
Nuclear Power: The Pros & Cons
Earth's Geological & Biological History

Vlab: Carbon Cycle

VLab: Carbon Cycle explores how human activities affect the carbon cycle.

Social Studies
The Amazon Rainforest
OPEC Oil Embargo
Sahara Desert
Interactive Atlas

Data Gathering with Independent and Dependent Variables
Algebra Course: Graphing One-Variable Data
Algebra Course: Analyzing One-Variable Data
Algebra Course: Two-Variable Categorical Data
Algebra Course: Two-Variable Quantitative Data

Data Depot
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Weather: Tornado Damage
Sea Turtle Nests
Bald Eagle Breeding Pairs
Bee Colony Losses
Threatened and Endangered Animals
Electromagnetic Exposure Standards
Methane Emissions
Nitrous Oxide Emissions
Weather: Coastal Flood Damage
Weather: Monthly Average Temperature

Data Depot provides over 150 data sets for student use.

Data Depot provides more than 150 downloadable, user-friendly data sets that enable students to work with real-world statistics.


Creatively synthesize claims and evidence

Students are now ready to clarify and interpret their findings and answer the compelling question in an original way. They demonstrate complex thinking by drawing inferences, summarizing, and making new connections. Final products could be videos, magazines, brochures, infographics, annotated maps, an essay or RAFT, a journal, or another form that achieves the objective.

This annotated map, created using the Interactive Atlas, contains the question, claim, supporting data, and conclusion.



Critically evaluate, revise, share 

After completing the first draft, students begin revising—working alone, with each other and with experts (e.g., professionals in the community). Writing Reviser is a useful editing tool for written products.  Rubrics are also helpful; include categories such as purpose, synthesis, construction, curriculum connections, thesis, conclusion, and sources. Integration of technology, originality, and creativity are also important.

Have students publish and share their final products. Doing so, the Buck Institute for Education explains, increases quality. Engage students in face-to-face presentations; encourage online posting with a larger community. Here are a few tools for online classroom collaboration: Wikispaces, Google for Education, Buncee, and TES with blendspace. Invite feedback from teachers, classmates, parents, and professionals. Encourage students to share their learning beyond the classroom.



About Author

Ada Lopez

Ada Lopez develops science resources for Curriculum Pathways. She recently earned The National Braille Press Hands on Award for co-authoring Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn. Ada’s goal is to help improve children’s lives. Her inspiration to develop technologies that enhance teaching and learning comes from her years in the classroom. Ada taught high school biology in South Florida and middle school science in North Carolina.

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