T-STEM Project-Based Learning: Craft a Driving Question
T-STEM Project-Based Learning:
The Texas High School Project (2010) defines Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Project-Based Learning (T-STEM PBL) as an inquiry-based instructional approach, in a real-world context, where students generate pathways and products that meet defined, standards-based outcomes. This broad definition outlines the basic tenets of project-based learning that facilitate the integration of STEM and non-STEM disciplines. Specifically, T-STEM PBL places an emphasis on providing a rigorous learning experience for students by meshing PBL principles with STEM concepts thereby increasing both student engagement and connectedness to real-world STEM issues.
The National Science Foundation (2007) states, “In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, all students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.” Through the integration of PBL and STEM, students engage in complex problem-solving that allows for multiple solutions while fostering research and collaboration. Additionally, these authentic tasks allow students to develop skills and technical vocabulary utilized in specific STEM career fields. The Transformation 2013 T-STEM Center provides PBL support to teachers as they learn to write driving questions that spark interest and propel students through a project.
Craft a Driving Question:
When a teacher begins planning a PBL, knowing the reasons why driving questions are used will assist in developing the right question for a project. When students ask “Why are we doing this?” or “When will I ever need this?” the rationale for using driving questions becomes apparent:
- To promote student interest: The purpose of a driving question is to give students a reason to solve a problem or issue facing them. Good driving questions will promote student interest and generate excitement for the upcoming tasks.
- To direct students toward project goals: Students often do projects without seeing the purpose behind it. With a driving question students will have clear direction towards the project goals.
- To address authentic concerns: Driving questions should address authentic concerns. How is the material used in the real world? Select a question that would make the material relevant to the student.
An intriguing driving question is at the heart of an effective project, setting the tone for the entire PBL and focusing on the overarching concept of the PBL. To consider how the guiding question relates to the real world, take the “big idea” for the project (what students will accomplish) and convert it into a realistic problem-based scenario that an employee might experience in the workplace. Next, craft this into a problem or question that cannot be easily solved or answered. It should be open-ended and composed of many parts that students can explore on a variety of levels. Driving questions should elicit higher-level thinking, and students should be expected to use their critical thinking skills in order to derive an answer to the question.
Driving questions must also be linked to learning objectives so that students are gaining both knowledge and skills as they work towards the project’s answer. Furthermore, the driving question must emphasize a high level of challenge so that students are not simply walking through review activities, but are fully engaged throughout the process. Finally, when developing a driving question and PBL lessons, it is important to keep in mind the scope and sequence of both district curricula and the TEKS.
Four types of driving questions
There are four types of driving questions:
1. Abstract, conceptual: An abstract driving question is one that is answered by conceptual analysis. These questions are answered through logical argument. There is no single, correct answer, and it is not easy to answer these questions with a one-word answer. Students will need to justify their response to these abstract, conceptual questions through a variety of activities. Examples:
- What makes a book a classic?
- When do we grow up?
- Should art be censored?
2. Concrete: A concrete driving question is one that is answered mainly by the analysis of empirical evidence. Students will need to do research to prove their answer. In this case, there is a right answer, but there are several ways to approach the answer. Examples:
- Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?
- Is the water in our town safe to drink?
- What effect does population growth have on our community?
3. Problem-Solving: A problem-solving driving question is answered by offering a reasonable solution. For a problem-solving question, students have to work together to generate a solution to the problem. Examples:
- How can the government use monetary and fiscal policy to address an economic crisis?
- How can we create an effective networking system for a corporation?
4. Design Challenge: A design challenge driving question is answered by creating and executing a design that effectively meets requirements. Here, the students are to use the engineering design process to answer the question. Examples:
- How can we design a local theatre that meets size limits and seats the most people?
- How can we design a museum exhibit about World War II so that it appeals to diverse groups in our city?
The development of a driving question is central to the inquiry process and it must be established before deciding on project activities. Furthermore, the natural outcome of effective project-based learning is a project completely driven by the question or problem statement and facilitated by the teacher. To obtain more information on PBL and driving questions, view the following videos and contact us via our Transformation 2013 website (www.transformation2013.org).
Watershed Project: Craft the Driving Question
The Gender Project: Craft the Driving Question
Larmer, J., Ross, D., & Mergendoller, J. (2009). PBLStarter Kit: To-the-point Advice, Tools and Tips for Your FirstProject in Middle or High School. Novato,CA: Buck Institute for Education.
National Science Foundation (2007) “National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System.” Retrieved February 1, 2012, http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2007/stem_action.pdf
Texas High School Project (2010). “Texas Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Academy
Design Blueprint, Rubric, and Glossary.” Retrieved February 1, 2012,