Extended real-world STEM projects

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Category: In class learning, out of school learning

Suitable ages: Primary and secondary


Extended real-world STEM projects are inquiry-based projects where students work over an extended period – typically a few weeks – to address a real-world problem. Students are briefed at the beginning of the period, are guided through an iterative problem-solving process, and present their findings at the project’s conclusion. Students commonly work in small groups. Extended real-world projects can work particularly well as part of school-business STEM partnerships. Examples include:

  • In partnership with BTG Australasia, students from Banksia Park International High School in South Australia visited the BTG worksite and then completed a four-week project on contamination prevention. 
  • In partnership with Mountain Range Nursery, primary students from Lakelands Public School in NSW designed a new greenhouse for the school garden.
Benefits Limitations
Students see the relevance and importance of STEM learning Implementation can be relatively complex
Develops 21st century skills such as problem-solving, collaboration and creativity
Fun and rewarding for students


 There is evidence that this initiative type has mixed impacts on student STEM engagement or achievement.

Substantial evidence from many studies suggests that project-based learning in STEM education can positively impact student engagement and achievement. However, a small number of studies have found mixed results.


  • Project-based learning: a review of the literature by D. Kokotsaki, V. Menzies and A. Wiggins. This 2016 literature review by researchers at Durham University reviewed dozens of studies on project-based learning. It found that many studies have delivered positive findings, but also noted that most of these did not involve random allocation of participants, which is considered the gold standard for establishing causal links. Many, but not all, of the reviewed studies were specifically in STEM education.
  • The effect of environmental science projects on students’ environmental knowledge and science attitudes by Sulaiman M. Al-Balushi and Shamsa S. Al-Aamri. This randomised controlled trial conducted in Oman found that project-based learning had a positive impact on both knowledge and attitudes for senior secondary environmental science students.
  • Standardized Test Outcomes for Students Engaged in Inquiry-Based Science Curricula in the Context of Urban Reform by Robert Geier, Phyllis C. Blumenfeld, Ronald W. Marx, Joseph S. Krajcik, Barry Fishman, Elliot Soloway and Juanita Clay-Chambers. This US study of 7th and 8th grade science teaching found that participation in project-based learning increased content understanding and led to higher pass rates in state-wide tests. Implementation of project-based learning was supported by a teacher professional development program.
  • Open and Closed Mathematics: Student Experiences and Understandings by Jo Boaler. This UK study on secondary mathematics instruction found that project-based learning led to deeper conceptual understanding in students and higher pass rates in the General Certificate of Secondary Education.
  • Alternative assessment methods in technology enhanced project-based learning by Maria Boubouka and Kyparisia A. Papanikolaou. This 2013 study involving computer science education for 13-year-old students in Greece found no significant effect of project-based learning on student achievement.
  • A report by the Education Endowment Foundation based on a study of project-based learning for Year 7 students in the UK found no significant positive impacts on engagement or achievement. It found some evidence of negative achievement impacts for low income students. However, this intervention was not specifically in STEM education.


Designing and running a real-world STEM project requires significant planning and creativity. There can be timetabling and curriculum challenges, as STEM projects may not fit neatly into a single STEM discipline. Extended project-based STEM learning can be highly valuable for students when school leaders, teachers and partnering organisations work well together.

Implementation tips:

  • Schools and partnering businesses or other organisations can work together to identify suitable projects. Don’t be afraid to be creative and adventurous!
  • Think about effective timetabling and how the project will fit in to the existing STEM curriculum.
  • Guide students through a problem-solving process encouraging teamwork, experimentation and inquiry.
  • Encourage students to demonstrate their understanding of STEM concepts when reporting and presenting their product.

Industry involvement

Businesses in STEM-related fields are well placed to partner with schools on extended real-world STEM projects to create unique and valuable experiences for students. Businesses can:

  • Help schools identify and plan engaging and relevant STEM projects.
  • Host site visits to kick off projects.
  • Provide employees to visit schools to share real-world perspectives and advice on STEM problem-solving.
  • Provide employees for an ‘expert panel’ to which students present their work.

Depending on the desired scale of involvement, businesses can either partner with a single school or with multiple schools for real-world STEM projects.

Want to know more?

Research Reports

Case study: Banksia Park International High School and BTG Australasia

Banksia Park International High School in South Australia partnered with BTG Australasia for an extended real-world STEM project for Year 8 students. This involved a student visit to BTG’s laboratories, a four-week group project on contamination avoidance in BTG labs, and presentations to a panel of BTG employees and other external panellists. The project exposed students to how STEM skills can be applied to a real-world business problem. It challenged students to think both critically and creatively. It also linked to curriculum learning areas in mathematics, science and technologies. Both the school and BTG were impressed with the enthusiasm and growth of students and were eager to further the partnership.