Improve student reactions to and engagement in STEM by incorporating project-based learning during chemistry lessons in your classroom.

Keeping STEM lessons fresh and exciting can be a daunting task. While incorporating project-based learning might seem to be a lot of additional work that requires a lot of time, over the long-term, implementing these strategies will provide a more efficient process of teaching and learning in chemistry.

1. Fueling Chemistry Lessons Through PBL

chemistryThrough developing lessons using real-world problems, Clarkson University allows students to feel engaged with the solutions they seek in the project-based learning chemistry activity “Sustainable Transportation Fuels.” Students will examine data regarding different fuel options and global needs to decide the best course of action to maximize alternative energy resources. The topic is broken down into different activities, which allow teachers to explore different chemistry concepts with their classes.

2. The Chemistry of Oil-Spill Cleanup

An oldie but goodie, the test of oil thickness on different surfaces has been incorporated in many science-fair projects and lesson plans even before PBL was considered an alternative method of teaching. As another environmental issue that can make students think about the Earth’s health, this activity seems simple, but its conclusions can have serious impact. The Albuquerque School of Excellence shares its plan for students to answer the question, “How would you find the thickness of an oil film using the materials that are available?”

3. Serving Up Chemistry in the Community

Through its promotion of service-learning in chemistry, the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) at Sonoma State University cites a program during which students from Rockhurst University tutored high school pupils who were taking Advanced Placement Chemistry. Collaborate with teachers of senior students to engage the most competent and selfless pupils to work with younger chemistry students. This mutually beneficial project will prepare seniors for group work in college and along their career paths while allowing junior chemistry kids to receive additional study time with peers.

4. Living in a Material World

chemistryHumankind has developed tools with materials discovered within their environment, or through trial and error of invention, since the Stone Age. The American Chemical Society (ACS) leads students through the history of man-made tools and materials, eventually introducing polymerization and plastics. By providing information to children for use during exercises to distinguish between natural and synthetic polymers, and items that are not polymers, this project reveals the evolution of the modern materials used today. During this lesson that leads through humankind’s history of manufacturing, teachers can allow students to work alone, in pairs, or as part of a group.

5. CSI: Chemistry Scene Investigators

Though Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Berkley, or Channing Tatum might not make an appearance in the classroom, as they did on “CSI: Miami,” students can still learn valuable chemistry concepts through forensic investigation. The National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) shares a project titled “The Cooler and Delivery Truck Evidence,” by Sara McCubbins and Angela Codron that engages students in the study of density, surface tension, dimensional analysis, kinetic molecular theory, and gas laws. The project establishes the story of a woman named Kirsten K., who is missing. Using STEM skills, students will help authorities in their quest to find the missing woman.

Additional ideas for project-based learning in chemistry can be found through the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), a proponent of this educational approach. Through using project-based learning, teachers are able to develop student independence, critical thinking, and potential through an approach that is more learner-centric.

Want to dig a little deeper? Download our free guide to project-based learning.


1. Clarkson University

2. Albuquerque School of Excellence

3. Sonoma State University

4. American Chemistry Society

5. National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)

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