Wanted: Lifelong Learners

Wanted: Lifelong Learners

By Kelsey Doolittle

Ask a science teacher what skills they would like their students to have mastered by the time they graduate, and most won’t mention organic chemistry or thermodynamics. Instead, their list will include abilities that are vital to today’s workforce, such as problem solving and analytical thinking. They also take pride in seeing students develop the passion and curiosity to become lifelong learners. Creating a learning environment that cultivates these skills, however, is not an easy task.

Recently, two institutions of higher education teamed up to help teachers address this challenge. The Center of Excellence for Research, Teaching and Learning at Wake Forest School of Medicine (WFSM) and the Institute for Instructional Excellence at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) have developed a process for creating such an environment by combining the former’s problem-based learning curriculum with the latter’s project-based learning curriculum. The process includes four key components.

Establishing Standards of Authentic Instruction

The process begins by establishing fundamental standards of authentic instruction that can be unified across a system. Doing so provides consistency in every classroom so that higher-order thinking and substantive conversation become the norm. These standards then become the bedrock on which a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum can be developed.

Providing Inquiry-Based Strategies and Resources

The next step is to provide ready-made problem- and project-based learning (PBL) cases that establish real-world connections to engage students and promote the use of appropriate STEM skills. Together, WFSM and UTD have authored 170 problem- and project-based cases that cover a variety of science topics for grades K-12. These cases provide authentic learning experiences while supporting a student’s mastery of content.

Problem-based learning emphasizes the paths students take to arrive at their solutions, while project-based learning emphasizes the process and application of content through a complex product. But both types of PBL have the power to transform a student’s learning environment by requiring them to think critically and learn collaboratively in order to solve a given problem.

In the problem-based learning case for high school biology called Project Site, students are placed in the role of a research assistant for an ornithologist at the Federal Wildlife Agency. The ornithologist has been asked to help in the development of a new shopping center and needs the students’ help to evaluate the possible effects of the new shopping center on area wildlife. By having autonomy in their course of research, students direct their own learning on the ecosystems and the ecological impact of the new shopping center. This ability to analyze a research topic, generate their own line of questioning and extract a hypothesis from their research is essential for a student to develop STEM skills.

Implementation Coaching

The third component of WFSM-UTD’s process is implementation coaching, which helps teachers prepare for the challenges they may face when introducing a PBL program in their classrooms. It also includes a self-assessment mechanism that enables teachers to continuously improve their presentation methods and effectiveness.

Leadership Support

The final step is a leadership support piece that helps teachers to recognize their personality types and teaching styles, as well as those of peers and other personnel in a school or district, so they can fine-tune their instructional methods. This enables teachers to communicate a clear, consistent instructional message and support its successful implementation.

The WFSM-UTD process is being used throughout school districts in several states with positive results. By laying a firm foundation of authentic instruction, providing access to a large library of engaging, ready-to-use cases that connect the learning to real-life events, and providing coaching and leadership support, teachers are creating a transformative learning environment where STEM skills can flourish. Armed with these skills, students are able to enter the workforce ready to succeed and with a lifelong love of learning.


What types of learning environments do you find engaging?

What STEM skills do you think are most important, and why?


Download a sample PBL case from fisheredu.com/pbl to try out with your students.


  • Authentic Instruction
  • Substantive Conversation
  • Problem-Based Learning
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Ornithologist