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Using Grand Challenges in Project-based Learning

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Dave Moursund


Project-based learning (PBL) is a useful and broadly used approach to teaching and learning. Teachers are often on the lookout for good projects that they can use with their students. This IAE Blog entry explores national and global Grand Challenges as a starting point in developing suitable local student projects. The message is, “Think globally, act locally.”

Grand and Global Challenges

A Grand Challenge is a “large” problem that is affecting or may affect the quality of life of a large number of people or other living creatures. Quoting from OSTP (2013):

Grand Challenges are ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination.

Many different disciplines develop discipline-specific lists of Grand Challenges. For example, see Moursund (2014a) for some Grand Challenges in U.S. math education. See U.S. National Academies (2014) for a list of eight Global Grand Challenges. Quoting from this site:

Many of the world’s greatest health, environmental, and security threats are beyond the ability of any one nation to confront by itself. The National Academies address critical global challenges by working with their scientific partners to coordinate responses to the problems that affect the lives and well-being of countless people—from finding a way to get a life-saving drug to an ailing African child to protecting an entire population from the risks of nuclear proliferation.

Here is what the site has to say about clean drinking water:

Clean drinking water is a basic human need. Sadly, more than one in six people still lack access to this precious commodity. With the cooperation of scientific, engineering, and medical academies from around the world, the National Academies developed the Web resource Safe Drinking Water is Essential.

My 7/21/2014 Google search of grand challenges produced over 2 million hits. Here is an example of a U.S. Department of Education (2010) Grand Challenge in education:

Identify and validate design principles for efficient and effective online learning systems and combined online and offline learning systems that produce content expertise and competencies equal to or better than those produced by the best conventional instruction in half the time at half the cost.

Think about how education would be changed if this Grand Challenge is achieved. Progress is occurring, but we still have a long way to go.

Quality of Life

Grand Challenges often deal with the quality of life of large numbers of people. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Quality of life (QOL) is the general well being of individuals and societies. QOL has a wide range of contexts, including the fields of international development, healthcare, politics, and employment. Quality of life should not be confused with the concept of standard of living, which is based primarily on income. Instead, standard indicators of the quality of life include not only wealth and employment but also the built environment, physical and mental health, education, recreation and leisure time, and social belonging.

What do your students know about quality of life at home, in their community, in their state, in their nation, and in other countries? Where and how are they gaining this information?

Engage your students in whole class and small group discussions on quality of life. Does the material students are learning in your class help them to improve their quality of life now, or will it help improve their quality of life in the future? What are some projects the students could be exploring or doing that would help to improve their personal quality of life and the quality of life of other people in their community?

This type of discussion is a type of advance organizer for having students carry out team-based, long-term project-based learning activities in their school or community.

Creating Local Challenges from Global or National Grand Challenges

As noted earlier, a Grand Challenge is a large problem faced by a nation and/or the world. Every such problem has an educational component. In a national Grand Challenge, the people of the nation have to understand the problem. The nation and its people must make a commitment of their resources over an extended period of time in order to address the problem. In a global Grand Challenge, the nations of the world need to collaborate to address the problem.

At a grassroots level, we want students to learn about the general concept of national and global Grand Challenges. We want them to study examples of these challenges. We want them to select examples of activities that can be carried out locally (by themselves, by their school, by their neighborhood, and so on) that can contribute to helping to solve the problem.

Here is an example of extracting a Local Challenge from a global Grand Challenge. The growing shortage of fresh water for drinking and irrigation is more of a challenge in some countries than others, but this is happening in so many countries that it clearly is a global Grand Challenge. It is straight-forward to build a Local Challenge focusing on fresh water. The basic question to explore is the fresh water situation in your own community. Identify problems related to reliably providing enough pure fresh water to meet the needs of your community and its surrounding areas now and in the future. Drought is a major problem in many places in the United States. How can your own community prepare to cope with drought and other problems related to the growing water scarcity? If you live in a drought area, what is being done to address this problem and what can your students and/or your school be doing to help address the problem?

Here are three more examples:

  1. Pick any national or global Grand Challenge that your students believe to be relevant to their community. Develop a credible case as to why the Grand Challenge is locally relevant. Explore one or more activities that your local community could be doing to help solve the local version of the national or global Grand Challenge problem. If time and resources permit, carry out a local project that can make a positive difference.
  2. Air quality is a Grand Challenge that is a very important health issue. What is the air quality in your community? Is it getting better or worse? What is being done locally, in your state, nationally, and globally to improve air quality? Define a local activity that your team agrees would be useful and doable to help to improve air quality in your classroom, school, or neighborhood.
  3. Urban infrastructure is a National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenge. Quoting from the NAE site: “Infrastructure is the combination of fundamental systems that support a community, region, or country. It includes everything from water and sewer systems to road and rail networks to the national power and natural gas grids.” You and your students can develop Local Challenge projects that explore local infrastructure problems and possible solutions.

Goals in a Project-based Learning Lesson

Before you become heavily engaged in developing a specific PBL lesson plan, engage your students in a discussion of the relevance of the project to them, personally. Also explain your approach to grading their team and individual work, and ask for their suggestions as to how to make the grading process fair and relevant to their needs. Play careful attention to their ideas!

I have taught and written about PBL for many years (Moursund, 2014b). As one aspect of PBL, I developed a PBL lesson-planning table. The table given below is based on some of the possible goals for a PBL project. Your personal version of such a table will help you to develop PBL lessons that are relevant to your students and to the content that you teach.


Goals: Students will learn:


1. Subject matter content relevant to the project, to problem solving within this content area, and to themselves.


2. To find and make use of credible information relevant to the project.


3. To create an appropriate combination of product, presentation, and performance that communicates the results of the project work.


4. How to budget resources (including time) in doing a project, and how to self-assess one's own and the team’s progress in doing a project.


5. To work as a team member doing a project (cooperative problem solving).


6. To be a project proposer/definer, a problem solver, and a "creative, higher-order" thinker, working in a group learner-centered environment.


7. To transfer their learning over time, distance, and environments.


8. (Other, please specify.) For example: Students will make good use of Information and Communication Technology in an oral presentation to the class.


9. (Other, please specify.) For example: Students will develop a Web site designed to communicate their project results to their peers in a manner to help improve education throughout the world.


10. To help themselves and their peers to accomplish all of the above (cooperative learning.)


Total Points



What You Can Do

Think about the extent to which you make use of PBL in your teaching. If you make little or no use of PBL, give it a try. If you are experienced in using PBL, try out some of the ideas given above.


Moursund, D. (2014a). Grand challenges in math education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 7/21/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014b). Project-based learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 7/21/2014 from

Moursund, D. (May, 1998). Project-based learning in an information technology environment. Learning and Leading with Technology. Retrieved 7/21/2014 from,d.cGE.

OSTP (2013). 21st century grand challenges. U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved 7/22/2014 from

U.S. Department of Education (2010). Focus on grand challenge problems. Retrieved 7/21/2014 from

U.S. National Academies (2014). Science, engineering & medicine: Working toward a better world. Retrieved 7/21/2014 from

Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (2014). Math problem-based learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 7/22/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 7/22/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Project-based learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 7/22/2014 from

Moursund, D. (May, 2014). Education for students’ futures Part 6: The Second Machine Age. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 7/22/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Good PBL lesson plans. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 7/22/2014 from

Moursund, D. ( 2013). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/16/2014 from

Moursund, D. (12/21/2013.) Education for the future. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/15/2014 from

Moursund, D. (10/31/2013). Transfer of learning. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/15/2014 from

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Guest - Bharathi Baskar.B (website) on Tuesday, 05 May 2015 06:48
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