Project-Based Science Teaching

Types of Projects

Although projects can be done individually, I recommend that teams of students complete projects. This not only reduces the workload for the teacher, but emphasizes the importance of group work in the learning, understanding and doing of science. I have identified three categories of projects that might help you in deciding when and what projects to use in a unit of science teaching. It is quite possible to combine the categories in the development of a project. For example, you might have students build something (airplane) and use it to design experiments to find the effect of variables on its motion.

  • Construction or Engineering Projects. Students build something (a cell, volcano, racing car, musical instrument) and focus on what they learned, demonstrate how it works, and explain how they would improve their product that they built.
  • Experimental/Research/Measurement Projects. Students design an experiment to study the effects of one or more variables on an object. Students should model scientific procedures by presenting their results in a group report that should include: The Problem studied, Purpose, Method, Data, Results and Conclusion.
  • Search and Find Projects. Students select a topic (global warming, mission to planet Mars, the FLU) or a scientist, and use primary and secondary resources to build a presentation board summarizing their findings. Students can make use of a variety of resources, including the Internet.
Steps for Projects



Teacher's Role

Student's Role

1. Determine subtopics & Organize into Groups

Students scan sources, propose questions for an environmental project.

Introduce general topic of investigation; lead groups in discussion of topic and subtopics.

Generate questions of interest; sort questions into categories; form project groups

2. Groups Plan Project

Group members plan project together; decide what they will study, and how they will go about it. They divide the work up among themselves.

Helps groups formulate plan; meet with groups; helps find resources and provide equipment & materials.

Plan what to study; choose resources; assign roles; send email report describing plans.

3. Carry out the Project

Members organize and analyze information and data. Pool their findings and form conclusions. Group members discuss their work in progress in order to integrate ideas.

Helps with study and research skills; checks with groups to maintain progress.

Seek answers to question; locate information; collect data; interview people; integrate findings and summarize.

4. Plan presentation

Members determine the main idea of their presentation and how to present their findings.

Discusses with class plans for presentations; organizes the process.

Determine the main idea for the presentation; plans how to make presentation; prepares materials for presentation (poster, video, etc.). 

5. Make presentations 

Presentations are made to class and others

Coordinates presentations

Presenters; give feedback to classmates

6. Evaluation

Students share feedback about the projects. Teachers and students evaluate projects.

Evaluates learning and summarizes the projects

Reflect on work as group members; reflect on impact of project understanding of science

This chart is based on Expanding Cooperative Learning through Group Investigation by Yael Sharan and Shlomo Sharan. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.

Earth Science Projects

The Mars Egg Drop.

The challenge of this project is to design a cargo system to safely protect an egg dropped from a high place. A drop from three to ten meters is recommended. Provide a variety of materials such as aluminum foil, string, Styrofoam packing peanuts, cereal boxes, cups, tape, cardboard, paper. Students should be encouraged to provide additional materials. Eggs: you can choose to use either raw eggs, or hard-boiled. Students should record their ideas in a journal or log. They should make drawings of their designs, and as they test them out, they should record the results, and explanations of the results. Establish a time period for the construction of the containers, as well as the day of the competition.

Students can relate this project to NASAís Mars Pathfinder Mission. 

Sojourner, NASAís Mars rover, withstood a crash landing into Mars. Packed inside a protective shield of balloons, the vehicle bounced about 15 times after a free fall landing on the planet. Even after this landing, Sojourner was able to navigate the surface for several months sending to Earth data and images of Mars. Have students visit NASAís Mars Web site at:

Erathosthenes Project.

This project is named for the Greek astronomer who accurately estimated the circumference of the Earth. It is described in LabNet: Toward a Community of Practice as a telecommunications project among several science classes. By measuring the length of an object's shadow and comparing this to the actual length of the object, student's can determine the angle at which the sun's rays strike the Earth in their area at a given time of the year. Data collected in places that are at least 10o latitude from one another may then be used to calculate the circumference of the Earth. By contacting teachers using the Internet, science classes can collaborate to try and solve this problem. In the original experiment conducted by Erathosthenes, he assumed that the Earth was round, and that the sun's rays were parallel. He set up a stick in Alexandria and measured the angle of the sun's shadow when a well at Syene (a city many miles away from Alexandria) was completely sunlit. He knew from geometry that this angle represented the angle of the earth's center between Alexandria and Syene. He also knew the distance between the two cities was a distance of 5,000 stadia (1 stadium = about 200 meters). From the distance and the angle he measured, he calculated the earth's circumference to be 250,000 stadia, which is equal to about 46, 250 kilometers (the actual circumference is about 40,000 km).


Another interesting telecommunications type project is to have classes from different locations measure the length of the shadow cast by a meter stick on specified days of the year. For a long-term project, students might measure shadow lengths at noon on September 21, December 21, March 21, and June 21. Since the Internet has no boundaries, Northern Hemisphere schools can collaborate with Southern Hemisphere schools to compare results.

Lunar Settlement.

Student design a Lunar settlement out of cardboard, pipe cleaners, cotton, sand, construction paper, plastic, tape, and paint. Students need to consider the environment of the Moon and what alterations need to be made to sustain a human colony on the Moon.

Planetary Travel Brochure.

Using both fact and fantasy students design a travel brochure about one of the planets of our Solar System. Students also design a transportation system used to shuttle people back and forth between the destination planet and Earth.

National Park Project.

Students design a National Park to demonstrate their knowledge of the environmental impact of National Parks. Their design should also include a topographic map of the park, and how the park impacts the environment in and around the park. Students should also design a brochure about the park describing the operation of the park.

Testing the Waters.

Combining local monitoring and telecommunications, students set up a project whereby they investigate the quality of the water in a stream or river close to their home or school. Using simple monitoring equipment, they should monitor the water for temperature, flow, pH, and dissolved oxygen. Students should also make qualitative observations of the land use near the stream, the ground cover, odor, color of the bed bottom, and erosion near the stream. Students should organize their information in chart or map form. Using the Internet, students should locate at least one group of students from another school (in another town, state or country).

Life Science Projects

The Biodrama Project.

Students write a play about the parts of a cell, and the life process of a cell. The director selects a cast of students, who rehearse, and then present their play to other groups in the school. Students might want to explore some topics related cells, such as cancer, Sickle Cell Anemia, or cell division.

The Dirty Water Project.

In this project teams are challenged to design a method to clean up dirty water. You will need to provide students with small samples of materials that will be used to make a large container of water dirty. Give pairs of students a small amount of the following materials: wood chips, sand, grass, shells, potting soil, baking soda, vinegar, pieces of newspaper, Styrofoam. Have student teams place their material in a large container of tap water. After all material has been put into the water, challenge the students with a method to clean up the water. Tell them they can use any of the following materials to design water treatment system: small plastic cups, beakers, sand, activated charcoal, cotton balls, filter paper. The students may add other materials with your approval. Students should design a system that will clean the water. They should document their work by recording ideas in a journal.

The Insect Project. Student teams should select an insect that they will investigate. After selecting an insect to study, the students should search for information about the insect including its characteristics, habitat, benefits and harmful traits, and literature about the insect. Students should then create a model of their insect using any materials they wish. The model can be scaled up in size, but the various parts of the insect must be proportional. Students should present the results of their research to the class or another group.

The Design an Organism Project. Students use any materials they wish to design an organism that they think will be able to survive in a specified environment. You should specify an actual environment, such as a forest or wooded area near your school, a meadow, a city park, a playground. Tell the students that they should also be prepared to explain why they think their organism will survive. What characteristics does it have to protect it from predators?

Project Birdwatch.

Backyard or schoolyard birding provides a powerful environment for the students to investigate the behavior and characteristics of birds in their region.

Students can build a bird feeder by consulting references on professional feeder designs, and then set the feeder in area that is convenient for observation and study. Students should then use observation skills to study the characteristics and behavior of birds and the environmental factors that may effect them. Students can then design research questions to investigate aspects of bird behavior, as well as the types of birds that they observe at their feeder. Students might consult an on-line project, called Classroom FeederWatch at This project involves students in monitoring and data analysis of birds in North America.

Physical Science Projects

The Paper Tower.

In this project collaborative teams are challenged to construct the tallest possible structure using one sheet of paper (81/2 X 11 inches) and 50 cm of cellophane tape. Each team will also need a pair of scissors. The project can be accomplished in one or two days. If a one day project, give the students about 20 minutes to experiment with various designs, testing them out as they talk aloud. Then provide fresh materials and give the students 30 minutes to build the paper tower. If a two-day project, use day one for talking aloud, and testing out designs, and day two for the challenge contest. To see students participating in the Paper Tower Project, visit Ken Royalís Web site at

The Balloon Popper. (Tanya S. Yocke, Shiloh Middle School, Lithonia, Georgia). The challenge of this project is to build a balloon popper activated by a chain of events. The balloon popper must have at least three different simple machines used as elements in the chain of events. Each event must involve the use of a simple machine. The last event in the chain of events should burst the balloon. The balloon itself is not considered to be one of the three events within the chain of events. Work on the balloon popper should be documented with diagrams made and recorded in journals or logs. The following rubric will be used to assess the projects.


Goal not met

Goal partially met

Goal Met

Goal exceeded

1. Used at least 3 different simple machines as the elements in the chain of events.









2. Balloon did pop









3. Drawing of machine









4. Used at least chain of events









Total= _________=%/16=________

Wind Powered Vehicles.

The challenge of this project is for students to design and build a vehicle using household materials to harness wind energy. The entire vehicle must fit inside a space of one cubic foot. Any common household materials may be used, such as: aluminum foil, plastic wrap, milk containers, tin cans, paper bags, cardboard, toothpicks, string, paper clips, shoe boxes, cereal boxes, and straws. Parts from dismantled toys are not allowed. Materials not listed here required approval. Each team member must keep a log their team's ideas and designs. As you work together and talk, record and draw your ideas. On the day of construction, team members must bring all their materials. You will be given 30 minutes to build the vehicle. On the next day, there will be head to head matches to determine the first vehicle to traverse three feet. Rounds of single (or double) elimination will be used to determine the winners. During the match, each team has 30 seconds to place its vehicle in the starting block before the fan is turned on. Awards will also be given for neatest construction, most innovative design, and honorable mention. All entries will receive a certificate of merit.

Clay Boats.

The challenge in this project is to design a boat that will float in water and hold the most number of paper clips (or any other weight you decide upon). Give students a measured amount of clay (50 grams), a container of water, and paper clips. Give students 30 minutes to work with the clay and test out their designs. Tell the students to record their ideas and designs in their logs, and to be ready to re-create their design tomorrow. They will be given 10 minutes to build the boat, and then demonstrate in front of the class the number of "weights" the boat can hold. As with the wind powered project, awards can be given for a variety of criteria: longest boat, most innovative, etc. Alternative materials: You can substitute the clay with aluminum foil. Give each team an equal amount of foil.

Spaghetti Cars.

Students build cars out of spaghetti and small marshmallows and then calculate how fast the car rolls down an incline. Students will need 6 pasta wheels, 25 spaghetti strands, and 10 marshmallows. Students must build a car that rolls and can hold one large marshmallow. Set up a "downhill track" and have students test and measure how fast their cars roll.