Have you ever planned a project-based learning unit focused around math at the elementary level? Examples of projects at this level with a math focus are few and far between. How should one approach this? Most likely, in a way very similar to what you are already doing as an elementary teacher using PBL in your other subject areas.
In the elementary setting, math and PBL have a unique partnership. While many (most) of the projects are centered around ELA, science, and social studies standards, it is usually a stretch to fit the math standards in to these projects in a way that connects to the real world. Simply adding animals to word problems does not meaningfully connect math to a project about endangered animals.
In thinking about math projects, the teacher must have that same mindset as he or she would when designing other projects going on in the classroom that involve science and social studies problems. Elementary forms the basis of math fundamentals such as number sense, computation, and the basic math facts for the rest of these students' lives. Using these to your advantage to deepen their learning is key. If you’re teaching math at the secondary level, check out the blog, Pythagorus, We Have a Problem, to learn more about how project-based learning can be applied to the upper grade levels.
When starting to think of a project, it's important to start with the standards, and with the end result in mind. The prior learning done in years before, as well as in their current classroom are also important factors to consider. In a recent project in our classrooms, we spent two months exploring addition and subtraction with regrouping before we could be confident enough to extend our thinking to apply that to a real world problem and project. Although the main content standards were addition and subtraction, other math skills, such as graphing and money, were taught within mini-lessons throughout the project.
The project we completed this year in math was based around my spring break vacation to Philadelphia. The students used the previously learned skills of addition and subtraction and applied it to monetary amounts. They learned how to manage money within a ledger and how to budget money. They had $500 to spend on one day of my vacation. The real world learning for this project was through the roof for a class of second graders. The realization of how much things actually cost was a learning curve for them all. They had to take into consideration travel, lodging, food, and activities within the day. They also had to collect information as to my interests for activities. They used research skills, money skills, addition and subtraction, graphing, and oral communication skills within the project. Take a look at the project here!
Along with the standards, thinking about how lifelong skills can be included within the project is also important to math projects. How many times did you as a student, or your current students say “How will I even use this in my real life? Why do I need to even learn this?” If you are able to say here is exactly how you will use it, and when you will use it, makes the learning so much more meaningful.
*Blog originally posted August 12, 2016.