Challenge Based Science Learning Toolkit – Digital Promise

Challenge Based Science Learning Toolkit

Illustration of various science symbols

About this Toolkit

This toolkit supports science educators with designing powerful learning experiences to engage all learners. It contains resources developed as part of the Challenge Based Science Learning project, in which educators designed eight challenge based science units on topics such as protecting pollinators, preparing for earthquakes, and finding healthy environments for releasing fish. These resources will help you create your own units or modify example units for use with your students.

Explore the toolkit to find:

  • Design Process: A guide to developing your own Challenge Based Science Learning 
  • Templates: Tools to develop units
  • Unit Library: Teacher-created units ready for modification to your context 
  • Deeper Learning Rubrics: Tools to evaluate your instruction and student learning alignment to the Deeper Learning competencies
  • Research Report: A summary of the research on Deeper Learning in challenge based science classrooms

About the Project

Using the Challenge Collaborative model, Digital Promise brought together educators and researchers to deepen their impact on student learning through the design and remix of learning materials and experiences. Together, this collaborative of three school districts from across the United States explored how the Challenge Based Learning framework can be used to create science experiences that lead to Deeper Learning for students. From December 2018 to September 2019, 18 middle school science teachers developed, piloted, and refined science units aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. These units leveraged the Challenge Based Learning framework to focus on solving community problems that connect to student interests, while also incorporating relevant disciplinary core ideas and science practices. The units will provide a valuable narrative for future iterations of the work where more development can be done to improve Deeper Learning assessment, inclusion of crosscutting concepts, and evaluation of the Challenge Based Learning framework as a tool for modifying and improving Open Educational Resources. This project was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Challenge Based Learning, Open Educational Resources, and the Next Generation Science Standards

Challenge Based Learning (CBL) is a flexible framework for learning that engages students in community-based problem solving. Throughout the course of a CBL unit, students engage with a big idea, create guiding questions, investigate, and build solutions to address pressing issues while developing deep, subject-area knowledge and skills. The framework provides flexibility to allow students a range of decision-making power over the problems they choose to solve, the questions they choose to investigate and methods to do so, and the way they opt to solve the problem they identify. 

The units developed in this Challenge Collaborative are designed to be, and incorporate, Open Educational Resources (OER), defined by the Hewlett Foundation as “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” By combining OER and CBL, teacher designers can create, remix, and modify the content of their materials to meet the needs of their students and also address the innovations in the Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent a significant shift in standards, from students simply learning about science content to figuring out phenomena and solving problems by doing science. A key innovation in accomplishing this shift is what the authors of NGSS call “three-dimensional learning.” The goal of three-dimensional learning is for students to use science and engineering practices (SEP), crosscutting concepts (CCC), and disciplinary core ideas (DCI) together in a way that explains scientific phenomena or develops solutions in engineering contexts.

Challenge Based Science Learning

The inquiry-driven nature of Challenge Based Learning can provide multiple opportunities for students to engage in three-dimensional learning. Using the CBL framework to design science learning experiences reveals several overlaps with the NGSS, including:

  • CBL is rooted in solving problems, an NGSS focus
  • The Engage phase is an ideal opportunity to anchor learning in phenomena or problem solving
  • The SEP “asking questions or defining problems” is ubiquitous throughout CBL, due to the nature of the Engage and Investigate phases
  • The Investigate phase of CBL provides a context for students to use multiple SEP’s
  • The Act phase of CBL provides an opportunity for assessment of three-dimensional learning

The increased student agency in CBL, however, also creates a challenge in accommodating standards. When we ask students to make meaningful decisions about the direction of their learning, educators must cede some of their power to confine learning to the material deemed relevant by the standards. Many commonly used curriculum design methods would suggest first creating three-dimensional learning goals or selecting existing performance expectations and designing the learning backwards from there. Early pilots indicated that this wouldn’t be a successful approach in CBL design for NGSS; it was difficult to predict precisely which SEP’s a student might use to solve their challenge, and selecting the practices for the student takes away some of their agency in the process. Additionally, without a base level of knowledge, students struggled to identify high-quality challenges and investigations related to the phenomena. 

In order to maintain student choice, accommodate standards, and guide students toward well-conceived challenges, the Challenge Based Learning framework was adapted to emphasize questioning and additional investigation during the Engage phase. This provides an opportunity for students to build a level of knowledge about the phenomenon using science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts. This leads to better challenge identification, and also retains significant decision-making power for students when it comes time to investigate the questions they develop around the challenge.    

To address these issues, multiple revisions of the design template were developed and tested, resulting in the Challenge Based Science Learning unit flow in the image below.

Illustration of Challenge Based Science Learning unit flow. Engage, Investigate and Act.


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