How to Write a Project-Based Learning (PBL) Case for Your Class the EASY WAY!

Related image

Writing and/or incorporating a project-based learning case is a scary experience for most teachers.  We have all read the research on the benefits of having students participate in a large real-world project. We know these projects deepen student learning and help students process information on such a deeper level because they are forced to actually apply what they are studying. We also know that students participating in PBLs receive an authentic, real-world experience in their study of a particular subject.  It all sounds fantastic but….. and that’s a big BUT…. I still can’t help but ask myself, “How could I possibly pull off some massive project when some days I have trouble even getting my students to focus for 15 minutes?” PBLs really shift the classroom dynamic from teacher-led activities to a true co-partnership between the students and the teacher.  For all my progressive beliefs, I’m really still old-school at heart and I just didn’t know if I was ready to totally let go. 🙂

I admit it, I’ve looked for a ready-made PBL for high school Biology just so I could try it in my classroom. Unfortunately, they really don’t exist out there (or I couldn’t find anything I could use).  So, what’s my next step? I was forced to write my own…. Easier said than done right?

I can’t be the only person in this situation so I thought this might be a good topic to share here.  I have been thinking about using a PBL for several years but this year, my goal was to create a project-based case to use with my Biology classes.  The unit I chose was Genetics (one of my absolute favorite things to teach).  I ran across the case of a family in Kentucky who occasionally had relatives who had blue skin.  (Yes, really!) I knew this would be the perfect hook for my PBL.


These are the steps I followed in writing my PBL on the Blue People of Kentucky:

1.   Pick an interesting topic

I chose the Fugate family from Kentucky that sometimes inherited the trait of having blue skin.  I actually saw an interview about this family several years ago and was totally intrigued by their story.  There are many interesting topics out there to serve as the basis for your PBL.  If it’s interesting to you… it’s probably really interesting to your students.  It’s not the topic that makes your PBL work, it’s the story you weave through the topic to immerse your kids in the whole experience of learning about it.  You have to be a story-teller and really woo your kids into the whole idea of the study.

2.  Content- The IMPORTANT part

  • Think of a scenario that students can become immersed in– They need to feel like they are actually working towards a solution.  The PBL I wrote on the “Blue People of Kentucky” had my students working in groups of 4 as a Medical Team to investigate a newborn baby named Ella who was brought into their medical clinic because her skin was blue.  Give EVERY kid a job in the group that has a job title and responsibilities to go with it.  Otherwise, you might find you have some students doing the lion’s share of the work. (Learned this the hard way several years ago!).  I gave each group a file folder and they kept all of their work in Ella’s “Medical File”.  Left side had their grade sheet and list of job titles and who was responsible; Right side had all of their work stapled at the top like a real medical file.
  • Choose activities and tasks students can do as part of their “case” that is something they might do as “real life”.  Creating a real world connection is vital!!
    • For example, in my “Blue People” PBL, I had them research 4 different causes/reasons someone’s skin could turn blue- 2 that were environmental, 2 that were congenital.  Four causes, four students in the group.. Everyone had a responsibility.  The worksheet form I created for this part was simple and just consisted of boxes for each reason/cause.  Students researched and passed the sheet around, each completing his/her box.  Every member was responsible for a specific cause/reason so when they had to debate Ella’s “diagnosis”, every student had a voice and was an “expert”. This was such an important part because some kids don’t feel “smart”, especially in a group situation. Arming them so they can have an “educated” opinion to debate with was so empowering!  I saw so many of my students really come out of their shell and exhibit unprecedented confidence!img_8479

3.  Make sure to have an overall driving question

My students’ question was “Why does our newborn patient Ella have blue skin?”  It was their mission to determine if it was heredity or acquired by some means.  This helped focus them and give them a purpose for the work they were doing.

4.  Provide some opportunities for inquiry and incorporate some student-driven elements 

The first task in my PBL was for the Medical Teams to generate some ideas about what could be causing their patient’s blue skin.  Then, they had to propose some options that they would like to explore next.  This provided an opportunity for students to determine how they would like to proceed next in their inquiry.

img_8480 After I read their “next steps”, then I could provide them with “Lab Results” based on some of the things that they wanted to know about Ella and her parents.  img_8481

5.  Give students a choice and offer different ways to demonstrate student learning

For my PBL, the “Medical Teams” had to present their diagnosis for Ella at a “Medical Meeting” of other teams.  I asked them to present their findings in a CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) format using Google Slides.  They were only allowed to have 5 slides- Title, Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, and Summary.  Each person had to do 1 slide, except the person who had “Claim” also had to do the Title slide.  In addition to the slide, each member of the team also had to create an infographic of the whole case and embed a link to their infographic into their slide. (On a side note:  I had students who tried to find actual pictures of Ella so they could put them in their slide or infographic. Many couldn’t believe it when I told them the family was real but I made our patient Ella up for our project! LOL)

Baby Ellas case

We used It was quick and easy! To read more about using in your classroom, please visit my blog post HERE for step by step instructions.

6.  Classroom management is important!

Create a system that makes it easy for students to know what they should be doing.  I had my students create a “Medical File” for Ella.  They stapled a grade sheet/jobs list on the left side and paperwork from their tasks on the right side.  For classroom procedures, I created a chart that showed the members of every group.  I always had the group chart, as well as what they should do first when they come in,  projected on my board so will not be any confusion what we are working on for that day.  I also always walk around the whole block so I would take up their folders to make sure no one forgot to leave them in my room.  It also gave me an additional formative assessment opportunity as I talked with each group individually when I picked up their folders.

7.  Teacher planning is important (No surprise here right? 🙂 )

I cannot tell you how I struggled with this part!! In writing a PBL, it is so important that you concentrate on the “BIG” picture… and keep asking yourself, “What are the most important things I want them to learn when this project is over?” Establish some objectives (or choose some of your course standards) and think about what a student who masters them should be able to do or know.  Keep your focus on the finish 🙂

8.  One last thing…. How are project-based learning cases different from projects? 

I struggled with this as I was writing my PBL.  I didn’t want them to “produce” something (like a poster, model, etc) at the end.  I wanted them to “experience” something— to try and dig around for an answer to a puzzle, to have to use scientific skills and methods and put it all together to answer a question.  I wanted them to struggle to understand how something happened and ask questions in their search for clarity. img_8477

To me, their frustration  with their team members who argued for a different diagnosis and, at times, with themselves because they just couldn’t figure something out, was proof that they were assimilating information in a meaningful way.img_8478

Do I plan to write another PBL for my class? Definitely YES! I hope to add one unit per semester each year.  It was not only a valuable experience for my students, it was a tremendous learning opportunity for me as well.

Want to read more about PBL?

Review of Research on Project-Based Learning (pdf file)

Project-Based Learning Explained (has embedded video)

Edutopia “What the heck is project-based learning?”

ASCD “7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning”

Cult of Pedagogy- “Project-Based Learning”

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (Buffalo Case Studies)– Interesting case studies (great site for topic idea inspiration!- The cases can be viewed without a subscription but site requires a $25 subscription fee if you want access to teacher’s notes and answer keys.  The paid subscription is WELL WORTH IT! )

I have posted a small part of this PBL dealing with pedigrees and the “Blue People of Kentucky” in my TpT store at

This pedigree resource includes:
• Pedigree PBL PowerPoint (in pdf format & in non-editable ppt file)– to introduce the case, as well as provide the pedigree key
• Patient Family History and Genealogy Report– provides family tree for your patient as well as analysis questions for their pedigree
• Ella’s pedigree— answer key for your patient’s pedigree
• Pedigree People (in pdf format)– both male and female; small size and large size
• Sketch Notes for Pedigrees
• One page student notes– explaining the basics of pedigrees & patterns of inheritance
• Pedigree Quiz with Teacher’s Key– 10 questions, 2 pedigrees to analyze
• Pedigree Practice Worksheet– 1 page; includes Teacher’s Key
• BONUS—Inheritance Quiz that includes Pedigrees- 20 questions; includes Teacher’s Key

Don’t forget to follow me on TpT  –>

About Edgy Instruction

Science Teacher (Biology, AP Biology, and Forensic Science), Anatomy Professor, and former Instructional coach.
This entry was posted in biology, Instructional Coaching, Project Based Learning PBL, Strategies, T.I.P Theory Into Practice, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s