So I wrote this project for my students - now what? Part 1

Now What?

Recently, I saw this really funny meme on facebook about the creative process. I think it also sums up designing and sustaining students in long term inquiry:

  1. This is awesome.
  2. This is tricky.
  3. This is crap.
  4. I am crap.
  5. This might be ok.
  6. This is awesome.

Ok, maybe I'm a bit dramatic. In the last two blog posts, I’ve discussed the entry event (“This is awesome.”) and a little bit about the backwards planning and big picture. As the project progresses, I tend to feel like #3-4 - students don’t really get how the content ties to bigger task yet, and I wonder if my design will give them the chance to do so. Then, as students make those connections, and the light at the end of the tunnel is evident,  #5-6 emerge. However, right now, I’m going to talk about the transition to “This is tricky”. Students often get excited about their projects...and then can easily lose that steam without direction.

Take, for instance, the project I’ve been discussing in my stoichiometry unit: one tenant of PBL is that it DRIVES instruction and is not something to tack on at the end of a unit. While that’s all nice in writing, what is it like in the classroom when students

(a) have 5 or 6 other classes to worry about,

(b) are only in chemistry 55 minutes a day,

(c) aren’t working on their project every day, since they have to learn content to accomplish said project.

While I am obsessing about this project, designing every piece to make sure students have what they need across the bigger arc of the unit, my students don’t have that perspective. They are in the middle of it and have this gigantic presentation looming over them in what feels like a very long time. I'd imagine for them, it's like they are hiking through the forest trying to find a way out, and I have a bird's eye view. How can my students find a way out?*


How do my students break down their task?

As a very “type A” person, if I am presented with a large challenge, I tend to break it down into smaller steps, figure out who’s doing what, color code all documents, force people to peer review my work, and then continue to agonize about it until it’s over (I kind of feel like the person in this Edvard Munch painting). However, many of my students aren’t quite there yet-well, maybe the agonizing part, but not so much the organization and focused agonizing.

When I went to my first PBL workshop, hosted by KSTF and the Buck Institute, I first learned about a scaffold, or a tool to break down steps, commonly used to force students to drive the curriculum of the unit. Ultimately, it is a way to focus students to ask questions that should drive the focus of their work. Students are to document things they currently know about the project, things they need to know, and what next steps might look like.

We do this right after reading the entry document and revisit it every time they have project work time in between lessons. It might look something like this:


Need to Knows

Next Steps

Things students know about the project at hand (One teacher purpose? To dissect the entry document)



  • We need to make 2.00 g of aqueous nutrient.

  • Project presentations are on… date.


Things students already know content wise (One teacher purpose: can students make connections among units and activate prior knowledge needed?)



  • I know how to do mass to mole conversions.

  • I know how to use google slides.

Things students are unfamiliar with (One teacher purpose? Assess how students dissect something they are not at all familiar with).



  • How do I figure out how to make 2.00 g of ____?

  • What reaction will our group focus on?

  • Who is my audience for the presentation?

Things students need to do next.


I’ve always had the desire to have each item in the “need to know” column line up with a “next step” item. However, my students end up saying they’ll just google the content in the beginning, which is not really what I intend for BUT I see why they’d do that.


As time goes on, my goal is that groups use this as a record to force students to assign tasks.


I have my students do this via google docs. The first PBL of the year, we fill this out as a class. When we do this as a class, I will prompt and guide students to keep the conversation going. The second project, students do this in a shared google sheet, with each group owning one tab within the spreadsheet. Groups are encouraged to “troll” (read and steal) each other’s ideas. Even better, I can formatively assess student understanding as this document evolves over time.

Figure 1: Daily log (see Supporting Information for a closer look)


I use the spreadsheet in figure 1 with my students (thank you London Jenks of Thermopolis, WY). In my attempts to give students more options, they don’t have to use this spreadsheet- they can use their own documents or online organization systems ( is really cool). However, they must contain the components of the spreadsheet.

My first year, I had my students fill in an additional day-to day task list on top of the spreadsheet. It was an experiment - I felt like the spreadsheet wasn’t quite enough. There’s a fine balance between not enough support and too much, and I felt like doing both was too much at times - some of my students honestly could have maybe used that extra support on top of the spreadsheet to help them better delegate tasks, but overall students got frustrated with the extra paperwork with such short class times (55 minute periods). I don’t blame them.

Note: Don’t have tech? I didn’t always have functional internet - one idea to manage this is to make each group a folder that always stays in the classroom (preventing the loss of papers at one kid's house), and groups complete this process by hand. It works just fine - students can still collaborate with paper documents (ex, gallery walk, etc). Don’t let lack of tech scare you.


Creating a problem statement to revisit over time

After documenting the initial "knows", "need to knows" and next steps" on the first day of rolling out this project, we create a class problem statement. This serves as a succinct overarching summary that they revisit over time (and I force them to revisit)- think of it like a detailed theme. This is to help jog memories as we weave in and out of project work time and content lessons over the next few weeks.

The template used in the workshop I attended looked like this:

  • How can we as…(role)
  • Do…(verb statements as to what they need to do)
  • So that…(why should we care?)

This I facilitate as a class. I heavily regulate the “do” portion, and have a decent idea in mind of what I want them to add here. Here is an example:

How can we as a

1. Find the best way to prepare an IV bag for the specified reaction with the following constraints:

**Design a procedure to prepare the dissolved (aq) nutrient for the IV bag for our assigned reaction.

**90% of the precipitate must be captured by the filter

**85% of the aqueous nutrient must make it through

**Total volume of the water added must be less than 200 ML

2. So that... we can present our findings to along with nanoscopic pictures of the reaction. So that people that need food, but can't eat or drink, get nutrients and live and so that we can get a good grade.


Personal reflections and next steps

Throughout the last few years, I’ve struggled with the problem statement development. I believe in its importance to the project. However, I have felt it to be really formulaic and repetitive from the "knows", "need to knows", "next steps" process. However, I do believe that students do need to develop this problem statement and learn to dissect a problem they don’t understand yet.

At this past April’s national NSTA conference, Heather Haines, an AP chemistry teacher and member of KSTF’s Engineering Task force, shared this awesome scaffold (from the ETF website) to help students dissect the problem statement. I will try using this in the upcoming year. It will be hard for my general chemistry students. What I'm excited about is this progression of the development of the problem statement- from the initial understanding of the problem, to requirements and constraints, data required, and refined problem statement.

One of my big take-aways from whatever you do - set up structures such that you can “stalk” student progress from day 1 until the end of the project. I make students create a google folder AND paper folder right after problem statement development. To earn a small completion grade, their google folder must have the correct permissions for me to open it and have their "knows", "need to knows", "next steps" document in there (even if it’s the class shared document). Do I always stalk work? No. Are there times when I need to? Yes. I have never regretted this decision.

Next time, I'm going to talk about group contracts and how I went from believing they were a waste of time to being a huge proponent.

My question for you all right now: What resources do you use to support students throughout a large task? Please share!

*Photos from Filip Zrnzevic (left) and Federico Bottos on Unsplashed.

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Comments 2

MeiPing Yang's picture
MeiPing Yang | Sun, 10/29/2017 - 11:51

Hi, I am quite interested in implementing this in my classroom.  Just some logistic question:  1) Do you have a shared folder per group or per student?  2) Where is the location of the shared folder?  Do you do open an assignment in Google classroom or as an announcement?

I did a PBL for the Nuclear Chemsitry unit.  I told the students the problem at the beginning of the unit, and gave them a spread sheet of list of assignments, activites, quizzes, and tests, before we tackle the summative PBL at the end of unit.  I like your idea of working on them sporatically through out the whole unit.  

Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Sun, 10/29/2017 - 16:55

Hi MeiPing-

Thank you for sharing your experiences! I hope that spacing out the project for students to immediately apply what they're learning works well for you and your students.

As for your logistics:

Google drive shared folder through the school's google domain. On the day that they work on knows, need to knows, and next steps immediately after the entry event, it is a mandatory group assignment along with the group contract. To earn credit for the "folder" assignment, they must submit the link to the folder to me via Canvas (the school's learning management system). Then I add each folder to my own work google drive. I highly recommend you make them share the folder with you if you go this route.

Additionally, there were some paper handouts (i.e., lab materials, each new letter from the "author" of the task/project) students needed to easily share. I gave each group a manila file folder to label with team name and to keep important group documents. That folder stayed in the classroom to reduce the issues with an absent student having critical paper documents the rest of the group needed in class.

In summary: both digital and physical folder worked well in my context.

Good luck!