How to adapt project-based learning for the Covid age

Strict hygiene rules and the need for social distancing can make science practicals tricky but Andy Brittain has modified his approach to teaching Stem subjects, which has enabled him to promote independent working while also bringing students together
8th January 2021, 12:05am
Coronavirus & Schools: How To Adapt Project-based Learning For The Covid Age
Andy Brittain


How to adapt project-based learning for the Covid age

The experience of Covid-19 has left many of us feeling that we have less control over our lives - and children are no exception. For many students, the past year has been full of upheaval. 

In an attempt to offset this loss of autonomy, schools have been working hard to give students control of their learning where they can. Andy Brittain, a science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) coordinator and physics teacher, thinks that he has found the perfect solution: project-based learning.

We asked Andy to tell us a bit more about how he uses project-based learning and the ways in which he adapted his approach during the pandemic.

Tes: What first turned you on to project-based learning?

Andy Brittain: As both a Stem coordinator and a physics teacher at an all girls' school, I am always looking for ways to fully engage my pupils with science and technology. 

Prior to the pandemic, I ran a number of student research projects and discovered that the collective endeavour and sense of purpose they generate is extremely rewarding for the participants. I have been running the British Science Association's Crest Awards scheme - a programme for practical, student-led project work in Stem subjects - for many years. My students enjoy the hands-on investigative nature and flexibility of the activities involved.

When the pandemic first hit, how did this affect what you were doing?

When the country went into lockdown, the research teams were forced to adapt. Some projects went into cold storage but many could be completed by working together remotely: editing documents, video chatting and sending emails. 

The success of this made me consider expanding the teaching technique to others. Since the schools reopened in September, Covid-19 has continued to present challenges to the teaching and support that we give to our students. I was looking for creative ways to help pupils engage and collaborate with their peers while working in classroom bubbles, and I soon realised that I had already been using a highly effective strategy to do just that.

What does project-based learning mean to you?

Project-based learning equips young people with a wide-range of skills. It encourages self-directed learning, creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. 

Students are encouraged to select a topic of interest, investigate a hypothesis (in groups and independently) and write a report
on their findings. This enables learning to continue whether students are at home or in the classroom. And because students can choose their own topic, they can play to their passions, which makes them more likely to feel engaged in their research.

How did you adapt your existing approach to project-based learning for the 'new normal'?

The pandemic itself has provided some useful context for students' projects. Stem industries have been at the forefront of tackling coronavirus; mathematicians and scientists are working on modelling the virus and developing new vaccine trials, while engineers develop essential personal protective equipment for frontline staff. 

I wanted to help young people understand how Stem skills can be applied to the real-life challenges presented by Covid-19.

Many of my students have chosen to investigate and find solutions to new problems that affect us all, such as researching whether medical masks pick up a high level of environmental sources of radiation. 

Taking part in a project like this can be incredibly empowering; it helps children to feel that they can take ownership of the situation, while improving their understanding of this unusual and confusing time.

How do the projects work in practice? If teachers want to introduce project-based learning, where should they start?

To get the research ball rolling at the beginning of term, I sent out introductory emails to each year group. I encouraged interested students to sign up for projects using a Showbie group I had created.

I then went through the list of e-signatures and divided the students into year-group bubbles, asking the members of each bubble to organise themselves into smaller research groups and select projects from a range of suggestions. We used Microsoft Teams to communicate - a process that had become well established during lockdown.

I explained that the students would be entering their work for the Crest Award and described the structure they would need to follow. We use the Crest framework because it encourages excellent scientific methodology and provides a clear framework for students
to follow in their investigations.

Once the students had established a workable procedure, I asked each team to send me their response to the first three points of the Crest criteria. 

Over the coming months, we would repeat this process, working on three criteria at a time, to keep them on track until all the requirements were met.

What about practical work? 

Lab use was carefully scheduled so that students knew what time to turn up and on which day, ensuring that the bubbles never mixed. As time went on - and as the parameters within which we were working became clearer - I switched to using multiple labs. This enabled groups to work at the same time but still maintain social distancing. 

I also established procedures for allocating, wiping down and quarantining equipment so that it could be reused more frequently. 

What type of projects have students chosen to pursue?

My students have worked on a real variety of projects. For instance, this year, Heidi and Sophie, who are in Year 9, are working on a project about the oscillations of a bifilar pendulum (a pendulum comprised of a horizontal beam and two supporting threads). They started the project in Year 8 - the same year they constructed a working model of an internal combustion engine.

Meanwhile, Catherine, in Year 10, has designed and programmed an app to support people with dementia.

These three pupils all had to contend with the interruption of the Covid lockdown and still produced excellent reports. 

In the long-term, what do you hope project-based learning can achieve?

My goal is to draw more female students into project-based learning activities. These investigations expose pupils to Stem disciplines that they may have already dismissed or might never have even considered. 

The beauty of a research approach is that everyone can participate and feel that they have contributed. Although the outcome of a group activity is built on the hard work of individuals, the team is a supportive unit that shares the pressures and demands.

Going forward, I will be extending and enhancing the project structure at the school. I would like to see a growing network of young researchers across the Stem subjects and beyond. 

I would also like to increase the number of collaborative investigations underway between academic institutions. I've already started that process by inviting a nearby school and
a local college to undertake research with us. They are as excited about the potential for this joint undertaking as I am.

 My experience this year shows that, given the opportunity - and with encouragement and support - young people can achieve great things, even in the time of Covid. 

Andy Brittain is a secondary school Stem coordinator and physics teacher

This article originally appeared in the 8 January 2021 issue under the headline "How I...adapted project-based learning for the Covid age"

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