Instructions: This Instructional Architect project is intended as a shell for Problem-Based Learning. Feel free to copy it (link below) and then use it as a framework for creating your own Problem-Based Learning Instructional Architect projects. Simply replace the text with the necessary components for your own Problem-Based Learning Activity. Feel free to change headers and collapse categories as necessary. Note that in order to see the link to copy this project you will have to be logged into the Instructional Architect.

Throughout this shell examples are provided of the given segment from the following project: Yellowstone Fires. Commentary about the example is provided in italics.

Problem Presentation

You may want to move this up to the "project overview" when you are authoring your own project. Present students with the problem, avoiding explicit mention of learning goals. Be as authentic and represent real-world complexity as much as possible. Consider using a press release, a letter, or even a story to present the problem.

In Yellowstone National Park, the fire season usually lasts from June to early September. In 1988, several factors led to an abnormal fire season. During June of that year, there was little rain and extremely high temperatures and winds. Yellowstone National Park was suffering from severe drought conditions. The drought left Yellowstone more vulnerable to fires than usual. Several fires were started by lightning and several by human activities. By July 21, many thousands of acres had burned. The Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988 were the largest series of fires in the northern Rockies during the last 50 years. The fires of 1988 led to an intense public debate regarding the National Park Service's fuel management policy. This policy stated that fires started by natural causes should be allowed to burn to their natural conclusion.

In 1995, a report by the Congressional Research Service stated that the current fuel management policy's reduction of fire control costs and damages is not well documented. For this reason, a group of concerned government agencies has contacted your team of environmental biologists. This group would like your help in resolving this policy debate. They would like to know whether or not to allow naturally-caused fires in national parks to burn to their natural conclusion. The government agencies are particularly interested in your recommendations based on your Earth System Science (ESS) analysis of a fire's impact on the air, land, water, and living things. Your group has been selected in part because you live so close to Yellowstone. You are more familiar with the climate and local ecosystem than other experts around the country.

Image of a map showing Yellowstone National Park.  Please have someone assist you with this.

Help the Forest Service make a decision. The next time there's a natural fire in Yellowstone National Park, should they try to put it out or let it burn? Perform an ESS analysis to predict the results under the existing policy and to support any recommendations you would make to revise the policy.

Using the protocol below and other available resources, prepare a report or presentation based on your ESS analysis in which you and your team make recommendations, predictions, inferences, or other appropriate resolutions about the problem. Be prepared to support the position you take.


First, you will perform an Earth system science analysis. Then, you will make predictions, based on the results of the ESS analysis, concerning the policy debate about whether to let naturally-caused fires in national parks burn to their natural conclusion.

Follow the steps in the attached homework sheet. You'll be handing this in after the discussion. The steps will help you with your research and prepare you to make a decision and be ready to defend it to the task force of concerned government agencies.

Comments: This is a tremendous amount of structure, so much so that you may detract a bit from the student-centered nature of the taskā€”but this is just one example of a trade-off. Maybe without this, the crucial learning goal of Earth Systems will not be achieved.

Current Knowledge

Ask groups to discuss what each group member knows and record their thoughts (perhaps on a separate worksheet). Have them be critical about the relevance of the known information to the current problem statement. Does this actually help them to move towards a problem solution? They should be able to pull some facts and ideas from the problem scenario above.

Example (click graphic for .pdf):

Learning Needs

Ask groups to discuss what they need to learn in order to solve the problem. They should record their thoughts (perhaps on a separate worksheet). This will help them define knowledge gaps that the group needs to parse out to members and then have them fill.

Example (click graphic for .pdf):

Information Sources

Have groups discuss where they might find the information they need (you might want to help them by providing a set of resources, but be careful to not focus them in exclusively on ones that will lead toward your intended solution of the problem. That can be similar to just stated the learning goals up front in that it precludes free inquiry by the students.

Groups should finish by asking assigning members to go and pursue specific information needs.

The following resources may help you make your policy decisions:
Comments: Key information is missing here, it is not clear that students should discuss assign different information gaps, then examine and discuss these resources as means to fulfill those gaps. In addition, the resources set is quite small. In this particular case the problem is already so focused that a small resource set probably won't matter. In other cases you might override student centered learning by having such a focused set of materials.

Information Seeking

Have group members fulfill assignments to find the information needed to solve the problem. Group members should be ready to report their findings at the next meeting. (You may want to allow time--perhaps outside of class to go and pursue information needs).

Example (click graphic for .pdf):


Students share what they have learned and critically examine the information (is it accurate? Free of bias? Authoritative? Most importantly: does it help with solving the problem?)

Example (click graphic for .pdf):

Comments: No prompts to look at the quality of the resources and question whether or not it is helpful in finding a problem solution.


Students attempt to solve the problem using the information they have obtained. You may want them to formalize this a bit (e.g. present their solutions to the class) but keep in mind the more you require them to create, the more you will focus on an end product as opposed to the solution process.

Example (click graphic for .pdf):

Comments: There is a bit of a leap between the dissemination step above and this solution step based on what is available in the handout. Students may be unsure of exactly what they need to do here. The example does do a good job of emphasizing process over end product. Students could turn in this whole packet and give you a pretty good idea of how they arrived at their particular solution.


Ask students to revisit the initial problem presentation. Knowing what they know now, what would they do differently? How do they feel about their solution? Are there other kinds of solutions that might be better or that they would explore further? Which information helped them solve the problem? Which information did not? What problems might the irrelevant information help solve?

Comments: The example doesn't do this step at all, which is common in K-12 settings due to time restraints.