Project Based Learning with Real World Experiences

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Project-Based Learning With Real-World Experiences

As a Project Based Learning (PBL) coach I help teachers design learning experiences with a project-first approach, as compared to traditional models of education that are standard/subject-first. The biggest obstacle that I have encountered in my years of helping teachers is coming up with meaningful and purposeful projects. I encourage teachers to consider “real-world” connections whenever possible. While that may be a vague term, I elaborate on the term by asking this follow-up question: “will I ever need this skill in the future?”. To me, that is what defines “real-world” learning. Students should feel that what they are learning has a purpose that they will find useful now or in the future that they can easily understand. 

There are generally 2 ways to provide real-world experiences, you can provide a genuine experience or a simulation of an experience. An example of a genuine experience would be something like an internship or a project that delivers tangible results or learning artifacts. A simulation can be just as powerful, but students should always be aware of the elements that are simulated and why they are being simulated. For example, a science teacher might want to teach about volcanoes, but doesn’t have easy access to any volcanoes, so students learn through models, videos and examples. 

Here is an example of a genuine real-world project that also illustrates the teaching cycle of a PBL unit of instruction.



Hydroponic Gardening Business (year long project)


The Harbour School Middle School Math teacher, Learning Extension Coordinator and Foundry (makerspace) teacher planned and organized the unit together starting with student strengths and core math content goals. The group decided on an entrepreneurship focus that would provide application skills of algebra, geometry, financial literacy content as well as a product development component that would make use of The Foundry and developing new skills in the use of tools.


After a brainstorming session and an introduction to entrepreneurship lesson, students then decided to co-create a business that would focus on sustainability and gardening. For the project kick-off, students and teachers researched gardening in Hong Kong and discovered a local hydroponic growing company and organized a field trip to their facility to learn more about gardening, hydroponics, sustainability, and business practices. Through interviewing staff and interacting with the hydroponic system, students learned hands-on what it takes to garden with Hong Kong water and soil, best practices for organic gardening with hydroponic systems, and about easy to grow plants for their business.


Teach and Reflect

Students developed a business plan and designed a schematic for a 6-tier hydroponic gardening system. With a solid business plan, the students were offered an investment from The Harbour School to acquire the materials and resources to start the business and build the hydroponic system. After students built the hydroponic gardening system, they tested through several iterations of growing different vegetables and made adjustments to their business projections with each iteration, finally settling on a plan that would maximize their profits. Along the way they learned about business profit projections, investment interest rates, organic fertilizers, hydroponic substrates, and optimal growing conditions.


Students settled on an online pop-up launch of their business, and sold vegetables and herb packages to The Harbour School faculty and staff through a simple online ordering form. They marketed their packages with posters and word of mouth and ensured timely delivery to all customers. After selling out of stock, students earned enough money to repay the costs of production, purchase their next cycle of vegetables and herbs, as well as profit to pay themselves for their roles in the business. The students are even planning their next business idea and looking for potential investors.


The hydroponics gardening system will continue to operate at the school and will serve as a community model for sustainable practices. The students that started the project will conduct a hand-off meeting to the students that are incoming for the following year to explain how the system works, proper maintenance and other transference of knowledge, The incoming group of students will be given an opportunity to decide what to do with the system and how to proceed. One idea is that we could start a community gardening project for residents who live nearby the school who are without access to organic vegetables and produce.


By using the Critical Friends protocol of criticizing the success of the project by stating “I like” and “I wonder” statements, the Middle School Math teacher, the Learning Extension Coordinator and the Foundry teacher have mapped out how students met the learning objectives, wrote narratives for student portfolios and documented the final details of the project for future use. This project has demonstrated that a year-long project, while sometimes difficult to adhere to, paid out huge dividends for the students involved because the students met their learning goals, made an impact, earned real dollars and are now interested in starting their own businesses.


This example shows a variety of ways that answers the question “will I ever need this skill in the future?” If you are interested in learning more about Project Based Learning, here are some resources you can check out:

PBL Works

PBL Professional Development

My blog with several project examples

If you want to learn more about this, tune into our upcoming webinar on the topic. If you are reading this article after the date of the webinar, no problem! All previous recorded webinars can be found here on our website

about Mark
Mark is Vice President of Education. He is passionate about project-based learning and teaching students to create with technology.
With experience in STEAM and maker education, he has consulted with teachers and administrators all over the world to setup and design impactful learning experiences with makerspaces and related education themes. He speaks internationally about equity and access to STEAM and maker education, most notably at the Stanford FabLearn Conference, MIT Libre Learn Lab, SXSWedu, EARCOS in Bangkok, UNESCO in India and at 21st Century Learning in Hong Kong.

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