Brianne Gidcumb | May 2014

PBL and STEAM: Do they intersect?

I recently attended an in-district training session on problem-based learning. After spending the past year diving into everything I can get my hands on regarding arts integration and STEAM, I wondered if there room for both PBL and STEAM in my school and in my district. Where do the arts and PBL intersect?   Some of us know PBL as project-based learning, and some as problem-based learning. The Buck Institute of Learning provides a great comparison and contrast of these two approaches:

PBL and STEAM, Do they intersect, Education Closet

Larmer, J. (2014, January 6). Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL. Buck Institute for Education (BIE). Web

While there are distinctions between these two approaches, the similarities provide a great starting point to begin a journey towards STEAM problem-based learning. Here are some of my “A-hah!” takeaways from my day with PBL experts:

PBL and STEAM are both based in process. PBL places the emphasis on how we come to know something, and less on what we know. PBL is a shift away from teaching to the test. While it is rooted in standards, it is process, problem, and inquiry based. If students can Google the answer to a problem, it’s not PBL. This process and inquiry is at the very heart of STEAM. PBL employs creative processes like the design process, which naturally aligns to creative processes used in the arts.

PBL and STEAM are integrative. In the real world, problems are not divided into content areas or specific lenses, and neither should they be in problem-based learning OR in STEAM. PBLs apply different lenses (economic, social, historical, etc.) to a problem. These various lenses could be from different content areas, but they don’t have to be. Just as with STEAM, to ensure the integrity of a PBL, only naturally aligning contents and lenses should be integrated.

PBL and STEAM, Do they intersect, Education Closet

Let standards be your guide. Just as in arts integration, where standards must be naturally and authentically aligned to focus learning, standards drive the problem in PBL and STEAM. While process is part of the “big problem,” content is what provides a specific focus. PBL should be assessed on both process and content.

Maintain the integrity of the “problem.” The more you parse out a problem-based learning experience among students and/or teachers, the less the kids will have an authentically vested interest in it. Allow students to own the problem and the solution. This means that teachers have to be willing to teach outside of their content specialization when needed. STEAM teachers don’t have to be artists to infuse the arts into an engineering PBL.

Intersecting the arts and PBL can be a natural fit. Whether it’s implementing a PBL scenario in the arts classroom or using the arts in a general education classroom PBL, it doesn’t have to be a challenge. The connections should be natural. Arts integration strategies can be utilized in a PBL. The arts themselves might be at the heart of the problem (see this Landfill Harmonic video for a real-life PBL application of how to provide instruments to children who had none).

How do we get started? It shouldn’t be about problem-based learning all the time- students still need time to learn the fundamentals in all content areas. However, to begin the shift towards PBL and STEAM, we can begin to frame things as “problems” for kids to solve or answer. Rather than the traditional “sage on stage” approach, we can begin with an essential question or problem and give students opportunity to take their learning into their own hands to give them those “4-C” skills they need. To access my AI/STEAM and PBL LiveBinder, click here.

About the Author

Brianne is a former music educator from Chicago and current graduate class instructor with EdCloset’s Learning Studios. She earned her Masters degree in Music Education from VanderCook College of Music and has over a decade of experience in the elementary general music classroom. With her experience in the performing arts, Brianne is dedicated to building connections between the arts and Common Core Standards, 21st century learning skills, inquiry and project-based learning. In addition to her work with EducationCloset, Brianne is a yoga instructor in the Chicagoland area. You can also find Brianne here: