Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning


Using Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning is a five-year, $5 million research effort funded by Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. The project focuses on integrating science, literacy, and mathematics at an upper elementary level.

Big Ideas

Using Multiple Literacies in Project-Based Learning is a collaboration between Michigan State University, The University of Michigan, and the Madison Metropolitan School District. This project aims to enable all learners to develop an understanding of science and literacy. Using language literacy and mathematical tools, the Multiple Literacies Project will engage students in project-based learning (PBL) to develop usable science knowledge. Project-based learning is ______.

The project team will design, develop, and test eight to ten rigorous PBL units for third, fourth, and fifth grade elementary students. The units will focus on teaching science while also allowing for the development of literacy and mathematical skills. These units will meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, and Mathematics Standards. Inundating science with both language arts and math practices will foster a deeper and more integrated understanding of science concepts that will better prepare students to pursue science in the future.

The project’s approach includes three major, complementary components:

  1. PBL teaching and learning materials, which include:
    1. The integration of science, scientific literacy, and mathematics,
    2. an emphasis on 3-dimensional learning in science,
    3. the use of a driving question to frame the exploration of phenomena and solving problems,
    4. using technology as a tool to explore the question,
    5. the creation of products that address the question and provide insights into student learning, and
    6. teacher-friendly and research-based scaffolds that support all learners in meeting expectations;
  2. Professional development that focuses on supporting teachers in building a thorough understanding of teaching material; and
  3. Connections to community and family resources to help link students’ prior knowledge and create motivation and ownership of learning.

All of these components, together, will impact the classroom environments in a way that allows for:

  • enhanced time to explore science,
  • the use of high-quality informational texts,
  • the building of scientific literacy through supported practice with material, and
  • the integration of mathematics in exploring and explaining phenomena and solving problems.

The created units will have both intra-unit coherence, and between-unit coherence. Essentially, ideas will build both within units as well as across units. This consistency in the development of concepts will allow for a deeper understanding that lets students effectively explain phenomena and solve problems.

The Multiple Literacies Project, much like many CREATE for STEM projects, prioritizes providing all students with the opportunity to obtain science literacy. This project recognizes that STEM opportunities are often unavailable to students from diverse and underserved groups. For this reason, the project aims to ensure that students from underrepresented groups are supported in their science learning.

To address diversity, the teaching units will include the following criteria:

  1. An emphasis on 3-dimensional learning,
  2. Attention to the community and context,
  3. Opportunity for student discussion, and
  4. An emphasis on giving students opportunities to think and reflect

Project Partners

The Multiple Literacies Project is a collaboration with Joseph Krajcik from Michigan State University; Annemarie Palincsar and Elliot Soloway from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; and Emily Miller from the University of Wisconsin.

This collaboration between universities brings together a wide range of knowledge across subject areas, as well as experience in designing PBL teaching materials.

Joseph Krajcik, Annemarie Palincsar, Elliot Soloway, Raven McCrory, and Barbara Schneider are leading researchers in the areas of science education, literacy development, learning technologies, math education, and research methodologies. Emily Miller has extensive experience at an elementary level, and expertise in the NGSS and in developing teaching tools that promote literacy. Deborah Peek-Brown brings 28 years of experience teaching science and designing PBL units. Linda Cucan at the University of Pittsburgh and Shirley Magnussen at California State Polytechnic will work with the team to enhance student opportunities.

Design Principles

The research team intends to design a scope and sequence for grades 3 through 5. They will then develop and test student and teaching materials for grades 3 and 4. Initially, the team will conduct teaching experiments in a small number of classrooms, then progress to pilot and field test studies. These studies assess the student and teaching materials to ensure they work as intended and promote student learning as expected.

In each class, six students will be randomly selected to serve as “focal students.” The students will be an outlet for researchers to receive a deeper understanding of the students’ learning experiences. Focal students will offer researchers many individual perspectives from a range of students.

In order to analyze the outcomes of their work, the team will need to collect data. Below are some specific ways in which the team will do so:

  • Giving unit assessments that measure the students’ 3-dimensional learning;
  • Collecting examples of student work, such as homework, projects, and constructed models;
  • Recording classroom sessions on video;
  • Interviewing focal students about their experience with PBL units; and
  • Recording videos and conducting interviews in non-PBL classrooms for comparison.

In addition, teachers will provide researchers with measures of:

  1. 3-dimensional learning at the end of each unit,
  2. students’ interest, attitudes, and self-efficacy for learning science, and
  3. literacy and mathematics skills.

Teachers will also provide general classroom observations as well as their assessments of student work.

Projected Milestones and Timeline

The first year of the project, the team will develop the entire scope and sequence for third through fifth grades. The team will complete units one and two for third grade, meanwhile developing units three and four.

In year two the team will complete the development of units one through four, which will then be piloted and revised again.

In the third year, piloting and revising continues. In addition, the team begins dissemination in this year, releasing research papers that analyze the data collected in their teaching experiments.

During the fourth year, the team will complete revision of all four grade units, and conduct field tests for third grade units three and four, and fourth grade units one and two. The team will begin small-scale effectiveness trials for third grade units one and two. The team continues to disseminate their data through research papers.

In the fifth and final year, the team will field test the last units in grade four, and conduct small-scale effectiveness trials for third grade units three and four. The team will then revise all units based on the trials they have conducted. More research papers will be disseminated based on their field test and trials.

Twice a year the team will meet with Program Officers from the Lucas Foundation.  The Project Advisory Board will also meet in the fall of each year. Quarterly face-to-face meetings will also be held by the team to ensure the project runs according to plan.