What it's like to develop a PBL experience from scratch... because I think I forgot.


I have already written a few blog posts on planning a PBL unit, such as a macroscopic view of backwards planning a PBL unit, and ideas of how to get your students to work together and not just next to each other. Why would I post another one again? Haven’t I already kind of milked my thoughts about PBL on ChemEdX enough already?


Over the last few weeks, I have been working with a middle school physical science teacher, Morgan, to develop a PBL experience for her students as they learn the basics of the atom, periodic trends, and bonding types. She is a first year teacher and has been so fun to work with. It has been really eye opening to work with her - in a good way. As I work with another teacher, I have realized that I have forgotten how big of a task it is to create ALL OF THE PIECES of these experiences for students (and let’s be real, we are a bit crazy to create this during the school year). My goal is always to be real with my writing and experiences, and here is something a bit more real for you all. In this post, I am sharing what it is like to develop a project from both my perspective and, most importantly, from Morgan’s. Think of it as a view from the trenches.


Photo credit:  asenkat (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canadian_trenches_-_Vimy_Sector.jpg)

Our logistics so far:

  • She came to me with a list of unit standards.

  • We worked out a general concept of what she wanted her students to do (design a superhero suit - students must choose compounds or elements to make up certain parts of the suit to meet requirements/properties needed).

  • Then, we made a sample product we would want to use as an exemplar for students. This forced us to revisit the concept and make sure the beginning and end aligned.

  • At this point in time, to kill the circles we were going in, I shared THIS PLANNING DOCUMENT FOUND BELOW. Originally, I made this document as a supplement for an NSTA presentation (where I actually got connected to ChemEdX - thanks for coming to this presentation, Deanna!).  In addition to a sample entry event (which I have shared in another post), I also have sample memos given throughout the project, student scaffolds (“hint cards”), rubrics, how to find panelists, unit plan with summary of the “what do we do in between project work time”, and more. (Please do not post ANY of these resources on the open internet - I have spent MONTHS  developing/synthesizing these pieces over multiple years.)

  • Since the initial brainstorming sessions, we have met periodically during the school week to check in.


Morgan1 has been so kind to share her thoughts in planning her first PBL experience:

As Tracy has already stated, I am a first year teacher, which is an overwhelming experience by itself.  I curse myself but I am also an ambitious and excited teacher, which you have to be to plan a PBL in the middle of the year. I love the concept of PBL, but I didn’t want to just search one up and use someone else’s. I knew it wouldn’t fit my kids and their interests or our learning objectives.  I had made some attempts in previous physics units that would unfortunately not fit the title of “PBL” in their implementation. So as we moved into chemistry  I decided to convince our in-house chemistry expert to coach me through creating a brand new PBL unit.


It has been an amazing opportunity to have an experienced teacher coach me through this process. We have worked on every aspect of the project together, but here’s the key thing: we have reflected together.  I think about how the day went, what I would have done differently, what to change for next year (because so far the project is definitely a keeper). Then Tracy comes in and asks great probing questions, mainly “why are you doing that?” and then I have to justify myself or let it go.  We have conversations which generate even more ideas. Reflecting with another person gets you out of your own head, and you try to think about how the students experienced it and then unrelated ideas  pop up that just might be the perfect lead-in to scenario X from the PBL.  Tailoring a PBL to your students is exhaustive work, but addicting.  It has strengthened my relationships with my students as I worry and think about their needs and get their feedback more often. I love the creativity as I try to design just enough structure for my students to be creative in a meaningful way. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all without the essential support of collaboration. Having someone else interested and invested pushed me to stay focused and inspired, in spite of doubts and deadlines. In a difficult time of year for all teachers, working together on this PBL experience has helped me remain truly passionate about teaching.


My reflections about starting from square one (so far):

I am really grateful for this experience. I am excited for even more intentional vertical alignment from middle school to high school. On a serious note, it has gotten me out of my comfort zone of planning pretty much solo. Agonizing about minute details with another human being is awesome. For her entry event, we literally talked for 45 minutes about wording so that students would create products very focused on the content. Additionally, because she works with 8th grade students, we eventually got to thinking that reducing the number of moving parts that students accessed would be beneficial, so she created a google site instead of using individual letters like I do.


Basically, these conversations and questions that come up have given me a fresh perspective on creating projects that simply manipulate students to ask questions about content they need to learn anyways (aka ask questions that drive curriculum forward). I am grateful to work with someone who has similar goals for her students, because her thoughts and questions push me. On the flip side, I’m grateful to work with a  teacher who is ok with me questioning just about every choice she is making.


To conclude, I’d like to share resources  with you if you’re working on planning from square one.

On the internet, there are many fabulous resources for entry events (Buck Institute of Education, Emory’s CASES, High Tech High resources). But an overall unit plan for a SCIENCE-based high school level experience (let alone chemistry)? An example of how a project might intersect with curriculum you might already use? Specific rubrics that get students to focus on the content? Ideas on how to get panelists to grade for 8 hours?  These are things I am interested in, that Morgan is interested in, and maybe you are interested in too.


Ultimately, I hope that these resources provide the necessary activation energy to help nudge your creative juices over the edge. Because it’s hard. And Dr. Ken Robinson says that “Individual creativity is almost always stimulated by the work, ideas, and achievement of other people.”1  That’s maybe why you’re teaching, right? To give your students opportunities to intersect with rigorous content?


Are there any readers that are doing similar things in their classrooms? Have you had positive experiences co-planning? Do you have any lessons learned for Morgan and I? Please share!


1 J. Morgan Schwab is an awesome first year physical science teacher at STEM School and Academy in Colorado.

2 “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative”, Dr. Ken Robinson, 2011.

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Comments 4

samantha bonner | Mon, 08/15/2016 - 20:09

What a great PBL sample for stoichiometry. Thank you for sharing the documents and the thoughts. I think I might have to try this one. In the past I have developed PBL unit for my thermodynamics unit and I also did a new one last year with airbags and gas laws. Both worked out well and I am excited for a new addition. I am new to your blog and I love your work. I am curious as I look over everything as to why you placed gas laws within one of the first content areas in semester 1. What is the reason behind that? Thanks.

Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Tue, 08/16/2016 - 09:54


Thank you so much for your comment. If you do try this, let me know how it goes- I'm always looking to learn from other's experience.

It's actually on my "to do" list of blog posts to expound on why I do gas laws first (after 4 years of not doing gas laws first). Short story - it gives opportunities for students to

(1) play with variables and deal with sig figs and such a bit more "in situ" so to speak (for what I was doing, it always felt super forced) - there are lots of labs and experiences for students to grapple with errors in measurement and why scientists have this system, and

(2) students get to model very simple particulate diagrams, graphs, and eqns and practice presenting ideas socratic style ("board meetings"- giant whiteboards).

I would LOVE to hear about the projects you have developed! In fact, if you're comfortable with this, I think the entire ChemEdX community would be interested... would you be willing to write about one (or both) of those projects? Anyone with an account can submit a post, and then it's quasi peer reviewed/edited before it's made public. Think about it... :)

Here's a fancy link to get started:  https://www.chemedx.org/contact/contribution

All the best,


Doug Ragan's picture
Doug Ragan | Tue, 08/16/2016 - 08:21

In the sample presentation, I love the nano representation of the before, during, and after. Well done by you and your students. Thank you for sharing.

Tracy Schloemer's picture
Tracy Schloemer | Tue, 08/16/2016 - 09:53

...no, thank YOU for reading and sharing!