Problem-Based Learning Center at Wake Forest Gets Hughes Grant

June 24, 2003

Where does your garden grow? How does your garden grow? What does your garden grow? First-grade children answer those questions as they complete a problem-based learning exercise that is their first exposure to science.

"The children design a garden just outside their classroom," said Ann Lambros, Ph.D., director of the Center of Excellence for Research, Teaching and Learning (CERTL) at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The six-year-olds learn to do soil tests, she said. They measure and graph the direct sunlight on the garden. They measure how much space they have in the garden. They calculate how far apart to set out plants to grow properly. By the end of the project, "they can tell you why things grow," said Lambros. "And they''ll remember the project for the rest of their lives."

In the process of "solving" the case, the first graders have learned some math, botany, and agricultural sciences. That is just one example of the use of problem-based learning for elementary and secondary school children pioneered and fostered by the CERTL Center, which was just awarded a second large grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The grant, for $539,352 extending until August of 2007, will cover "a comprehensive multi-tiered plan for professional development of teachers" which is anchored in the problem-based learning method. The teachers not only learn how to use problem-based learning in their teaching, but also how to design cases and develop the materials.

Under the grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (a private, nonprofit medical research organization dedicated to fostering biomedical research and science education), selected K-8 students will participate in a two-week science and mathematics summer camp anchored in problem based learning instruction. "Most schools still insist on rote memorization of principles and facts taught independently of their use," said Lambros. But research has shown that for long-term learning "students must be active participants in the learning process."

It works even better if the learning is in a real world setting --students solve a problem by investigating it themselves, which is the essence of problem-based learning.

The CERTL Center began at Wake Forest in 1996 as one of 11 centers nationally funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the quality of science, math and technology instruction in the schools and, Lambros said, it''s the only one left.

Since that NSF grant, the CERTL Center has gotten additional support: the initial four-year Hughes grant for $300,000 that began in 1999, a $1.5 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health that began in 2000, and a grant from the Burroughs Welcome Foundation for $60,000.

The CERTL program has always had a dual focus: professional development for K-12 teachers and student enrichment programs. A summer research program for high school students -- primarily minorities -- is designed to interest students in science and math by involving them in research projects for six weeks either at the medical school or at Winston-Salem State University. They write a scientific paper and present it at a student research symposium.

And, said Lambros, it works: 97 percent of those tracked are going to or have graduated from a four-year college or university; the other 3 percent are in the military with plans to attend college. She said 44 percent have declared a major in math, science or technology; another 20 percent have yet to declare a major.

The problem-based learning cases developed by the teachers are catalogued and made widely available to other teachers in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools, and indeed, CERTL is part of the schools’ interschool mail route to facilitate distribution of cases to the classroom. The cases come not only with instructions but the materials to accomplish them, like the K''nex8 parts to build working roller coasters -- all different -- developed by a number of middle school classes.

During the school year that was just completed, 693 cases were sent, upon request, to individual elementary, middle and high school teachers, Lambros said.

CERTL was based on experience teaching Wake Forest medical students by the problem-based learning method, which began in 1987 with one fourth of the class -- the so-called parallel curriculum -- and expanded in 1998 to entire classes at the advent of the new curriculum.


Contact: Robert Conn (, Karen Richardson ( or Lisa Long ( at (336) 716-4587.

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