Core Elements of GREAT Projects

Core Elements of GREAT Project Pathways

The GREAT Project Pathways model offers flexibility in implementation - both by students, who have choices to make along the way, and by teachers, who can predetermine project parameters and add or remove activities. Regardless of how a Project Pathways is customized, the following elements are always core components:

                      • 3-Dimensional Science 
                      • Project-based Learning
                      • Field Studies (Outdoor Education)
                      • STEM integration
3d braid

3-Dimensional Learning & Next Generation Science 

"Three-dimensional learning" is a process that engages students in using science and engineering practices and looking for crosscutting concepts in order to make sense of core ideas. GREAT Project Pathways are both "three-dimensional" and consistent with Next Generation Science (NGSS). But you don't have to live in a state that adopted NGSS for this approach to be effective in your teaching practice! Georgia (and other states that did not adopt NGSS) embraces this teaching approach and applies it to "home-grown" standards.

Each GREAT Project Pathway provides a storyline that bundles several core ideas (concepts) in science. Students observe an unexplained phenomenon at the first step of the pathway and are quickly immersed in asking questions and conducting investigations without any preliminary reading, vocabulary, or direct instruction. They find a corollary in the schoolyard or community: a real-world scenario that is based on the same phenomenon, and explore it. In the process, students collect and analyze data, solve authentic problems, think critically, and gain experience that will help them more-accurately explain the original phenomenon.

For more information on three-dimensional learning, read the Framework for K-12 Science Education or request access to Captain Planet Foundation's free, self-paced online course: "3-D Science in the Schoolyard" by emailing your request to the CPF Institute.

PBL Instructional Strategies

GREAT Project Pathways are designed to incorporate the transformative instructional strategies of PBL. If that seems confusing, it's because the same acronym can be used to refer to phenomenon-based learning, problem-based learning, or project-based learning. In the case of GREAT projects, all apply. Each pathway begins with students observing a mysterious, unexplained event (phenomenon-based learning); includes analysis of case studies (problem-based learning); and provides an opportunity for students to design and carry out an extended project in the schoolyard or community (project-based learning).



High quality PBL offers context and cultural relevance to an extended, experiential learning process. An essential component is student "voice and choice," meaning that kids have decision-making roles at key points in the process, such as determining what type of data to collect, choosing what investigations will help them understand the phenomenon, and identifying an authentically-needed problem to solve with a student-designed project. In assuming ownership of that project, students are empowered to make a difference in the real world: a powerful antidote to the helplessness that most report feeling when they study human impacts on the environment. In addition to deepening their understanding of core ideas in science, students cultivate 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking throughout the process. After the project, students assess its educational and environmental impacts, reflect on their contributions, and teach "stakeholders" about the work they've done. 

For more information on project-based learning, request access to Captain Planet Foundation's free, self-paced online course: "GREAT Pathways through PBL" by emailing your request to the CPF Institute.

PBL Chart

Field Studies

The GREAT Project Pathways model was created based on research that shows that shows the value of outdoor learning :

  • The Framework for K-12 Science Education indicates that students learn best when they are engaged in the science and engineering practices, looking for crosscutting concepts, and making sense of core ideas.
  • The schoolyard offers local, real-world phenomena and context to provide relevance for all science investigations (not just those typically thought of as "environmental.")
  • Students who learn about human impacts on the environment are often overwhelmed and become disengaged by the enormity of the problems. "We have to give children a chance to love nature before we ask them to save it"
  • Adults who identify themselves as caring about the environment cite formative childhood experiences outdoors (including exploring, hiking, camping, hunting), gardening, or experiencing nature on trips to parks.
  • Schoolyard investigations provide opportunities for students to connect deeply with nature and to experience discovery, wonder, and awe.
  • Empowering students to solve real world problems is effective in increasing self-efficacy, overcoming despair about the environment; and preparing them for life after school through communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.
  • Project based learning is most effective when it provides opportunities for student input ("voice and choice") on tangible, real-world, local projects that are authentically needed and have lasting value
  • Girls and children of color (groups that have been traditionally marginalized in STEM fields) are attracted to social- and environmental justice projects where they can apply STEM skills

For tips for on managing a class in an outdoor setting, including classroom management techniques, please refer to these suggestions from esteemed environmental educators Jerry Hightower and Petey Giroux.


STEM Integration

Engaging students in schoolyard investigations and problem-solving provides real-world context and relevance for learning. The GREAT Project Pathways focus on local manifestations of scientific problems instead of distant, abstract examples. As a result, students explore local impacts of climate change instead of polar bears marooned on ice bergs. Rather than learning about endangered species in exotic locations, students find out what plants and animals are vulnerable, threatened or endangered in their own backyard.

Local learning opportunities not only provide relevance, they give students a chance to act as scientists and conduct direct investigations instead of reading about science as a distant enterprise only undertaken by experts. That's also why students are also encouraged to contribute the data they collect to citizen science projects where they are authentically needed to further research.