Project-Based Learning Fills After-School Hours with Fun

Don’t you just love back-to-school season? It’s been such an exciting period — one of renewal, of a time to put the memories of that beach vacation behind us and start stimulating the brain again. One of the best ways for students to do that is through something called “project-based learning.”

What is it, exactly? For some, “project-based learning” brings up images of  the proverbial “workshop in the garage” — the sewing room, or a work bench, perhaps — where many children first observed and helped as an adult tinkered or repaired mundane items such as bikes or furniture slipcovers. Engaging in hands-on construction and experimentation through design or mechanical repair can ignite a young person’s imagination and creativity.

Project-based learning is a vehicle for students to explore questions and examine methods for problem-solving through critical thinking, experimentation, and trial-and-error. It’s a hands-on method for embedding critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities into a young person’s mindset, attributes that are bound to help students pursue and stick with science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM subjects that the Broadcom Foundation is so vested in.

MASTERS participating in a Project  Based Learning Activity
Broadcom MASTERS finalists participating in a project-based learning activity.

Project-based learning allows students to develop interests and technical expertise that aligns with their personal passions. Participants in Broadcom MASTERS — the Foundation’s flagship science fair competition for middle schoolers — can fashion entries that are focused on solving a single problem, centered on a specific investigation or tasked with designing a system.

For instance, during the competition finals, which kick off next week, the participants will tackle multiple STEM challenges of some sort that exemplify what project-based learning is all about, including a Rube Goldberg team exercise. Other challenges might involve “building a better building” or devising an alternative energy system.

For a child to develop these skills of collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, there needs to be a time for project-based learning – and after-school hours seem to be the most ideal.

For middle school students especially, the hours between school dismissal and the time the adults come home are especially critical. Middle school comes at an impressionable age, a turning point when young people are developing independent interests and social groups. Some lose interest in academics and become vulnerable to destructive influences such as drug or alcohol use or gang-related activity.

But others become inspired — perhaps by an educator or a mentor or a peer — and start to discover their passions, those inner-sparks that will motivate them through high school, college and eventually a career. Those after-school hours are tailor-made for learning opportunities that are fun, enriching and focused on building and innovating.

Particularly, the Broadcom Foundation is  bullish on after-school programs that combine project-based learning with elements of science, technology, engineering and science in the mix.

The After School Alliance notes that nearly 80 percent of future careers will require some passion for and expertise in STEM skills. A stimulating STEM education is essential for developing the basic analytical, problem-solving and critical thinking skills central to academic achievement and workforce readiness in the 21st century. Because afterschool programs complement and supplement school-day learning, they are well-positioned to engage and motivate participants in STEM learning.

Author Gary J. Beach the makes the case in his book, The U.S. Technology Skills Gap (Wiley 2013), that today, “The five Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and confidence) must join the “three Rs” (reading, writing and arithmetic),” if we are to develop a competitive workforce for tomorrow.  Achieving “the 5 Cs” requires a concerted effort in both formal (classroom) and informal (after-school) learning spaces to establish a platform for project-based learning.

We’re excited about the beginning of a new school year, and hope that this season brings fresh energy to after-school project-based learning across the nation. It is a great environment to impart basic STEM learning to a wide demographic — something that must take place now if we are to have skilled workers and thinkers who can compete effectively in the workforce of tomorrow.