PBL & College STEM Courses

When we think of PBL (Project Based Learning) we often imagine elementary school classrooms with engaging and meaningful projects, like our Biomimicry Designs Project. However we might associate PBL less often with its ability to positively impact college students. Well, it turns out PBL is happening in higher education and when exposed to PBL in a given field, it is impacting their aspirations to pursue careers in that field.

Interestingly, recent research has shown three areas PBL can create positive results for college students studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

1. Self-efficacy (an individual's belief in their innate ability to achieve goals) within STEM related fields.

2. The learners’ perceptions of the utility the STEM courses provided in relation to a future career.

3. Enhancing their desire to pursue a career pathway in a STEM field.

The study published in The Journal of Research in Science Teaching explored these outcomes and uncovered additional evidence on the merits of aligning PBL with STEM as well as including PBL in post-secondary education settings.


What’s self-efficacy? Well, imagine providing learners the opportunity to deepen their belief in what they are able to accomplish. That’s self-efficacy - our belief in what we are able to accomplish. How can we enhance that? One way is to design learning opportunities where students are able to directly experience performance accomplishments. (Read more on self-efficacy here). Higher levels of self-efficacy are garnered through project based courses because the foundation of PBL is centered on the idea that empowering learners through authentic (real-life) challenges which require them to produce tangible demonstrations of their mastery leads to deeper and more meaningful learning.

“In essence, authentic experiences with projects affected student perceptions of their own STEM skills and their perceptions of the utility of STEM courses for their future careers, which in turn, strengthened their career aspirations.” (Beier et al., 2018)


“Students engaged in solving real‐world, client‐centered problems within the courses, and these experiences provided them with valuable insight into jobs and job tasks in natural science and engineering fields.” (Beier et al., 2018)

One of the striking outcomes of the study is the opportunity for students to experience what tasks and jobs in the STEM fields might be like in the real-world. Too often, learners are directed with rote memorization and learning experiences that aren’t aligned with authentic and meaningful applications. Learners are given the “what” instead of the “why” and “how”. College-level learners need authentic learning experiences that are designed to enact the very skills and behaviors that will be utilized in professional settings. Thus, the researchers found that including PBL as an integral aspect of a learning environment empowers learners with experiences that have real-world meaning while also mimicking environments and challenges they will likely encounter in a professional work setting.


College students who enrolled in the PBL oriented course revealed increased aspirations to pursue a STEM related field as a profession. How often have you heard about students who’ve taken a course to fulfill a requirement and, despite passing, would prefer NOT to take any more courses in that discipline? The learning turned them off to more learning in that field. Sad, but too often true.

In contrast in this study, the “results showed that engaging in at least one PjBL course during the first four semesters of college is related to higher levels of career aspirations in STEM disciplines, greater STEM skills efficacy, and higher ratings of the utility of STEM courses.” (Beier et al., 2018)


“It may, however, be challenging to engage STEM instructors in PjBL or other types of active learning given that these approaches tend to require additional resources in terms of instructor time…” (Beier et al., 2018)

PBL certainly requires dedication and a deeper level of instructor involvement. At PBL Consulting, we understand these reservations firsthand and have crafted approaches that value the time and attention of the professionals we work alongside...and I bet you’ll have fun learning the process of designing meaningful PBL experiences for your classroom, school or district!!

Additional Reading

If you’re curious to read more about STEM, a blog we enjoy following is Edutopia’s STEM Blog.