Who We Are

The Knowledge in Action Project collaborative has been focused on designing, implementing, and conducting research on project-based learning courses that achieve the standards of traditional Advanced Placement courses and add value for learning, engagement, and identity for diverse groups of students.

The project began in 2007 in a suburban district in Washington State. By 2013 our courses had been implemented in urban schools in Washington, California, and Iowa. Founded on the concept of “anchored collaboration” the project seeks to involve students and teachers from diverse backgrounds working with an interdisciplinary research team in a collaborative problem-solving team environment.

This collaborative approach has assisted the researchers in early identification of issues, interpretation of data, and refinement of curricula and approaches to student engagement. These efforts have focused the research toward certain content and teaching approaches that show significant promise for meeting main project goals and objectives, given financial and policy support from districts and the time to implement and refine Project Based Learning (PBL) courses and engagement practices.

An overarching goal of the project has been to create courses that are effective in helping students learn complex content deeply enough to transfer to novel situations, while engaging them in consequential work with important ideas. Data from the project appear to support the notion that deep learning in a given subject matter can be enhanced over time in PBL courses through quasi-repetitive “looping” cycles of engagement and immersion in comprehensive, well-designed projects.

One of the project objectives was to develop tests to better measure deep learning and flexible transfer, so for each course our team used design-based implementation research (DBIR) methods to design, implement, and revise curricula. For each course, the team created a Complex Scenario Test (CST) that required students to address a novel complex problem using the knowledge and skills that they learn in their AP course.

Throughout the project, DBIR was employed for research and development of educational interventions that would be inherently usable, scalable, and sustainable. This focus on DBIR is motivated by an interest in educational interventions that survive the translation from research to practice, and mechanisms for studying interventions that focus on adaptation rather that alignment and fidelity. While the approach has been refined over the course of the project, there are important consistencies in principle and characteristics of all courses, including these core design principles:

1. Projects as the spine of the course

2. Quasi-repetitive activity cycles (“looping”)

3. Engagement designed to create a “need to know”

4. Teachers as co-designers and collaborators

5. An eye toward scalability

We are encouraged that this approach is showing promise in meeting the project goals and objectives, while engaging students in consequential work using the knowledge and skills they learned through our PBL courses. Our intent is for students to think deeply to see connections to their lives, and to improve learning, and to think of themselves as people who participate in decision-making in a democracy.


The Knowledge in Action Project was formed to investigate the possibility of developing rigorous advanced high school courses using a PBL approach. The project was established as an “anchored collaboration” between the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Bellevue School District, and the University of Washington LIFE Center (1).

Anchored collaboration is grounded in the notion that stakeholders will approach a common problem from different perspectives and these multiple perspectives can help surface (often tacit) assumptions that can then be examined and strategically addressed. In addition, anchored collaboration entails the broader strategy of actively attempting to identify fruitful “conceptual collisions” among stakeholders that when attended to can lead to new insights and creative solutions (e.g., Bransford et al., 2006).

Since 2007, the Knowledge in Action Project collaborative has been focused on the problem of creating PBL-AP courses that achieve the standards of traditional AP courses and add value for learning, engagement and identity for diverse groups of students (not only students who traditionally take AP courses). The project completed in 2008 the design of its first project based learning AP course: United States Government and Politics (APGOV). Each year thereafter, data have been used to improve the course design and to better ready it for subsequent classroom implementation. A similar effort was initiated in 2010 for AP Environmental Science (APES) and in 2013 for AP Physics I.

The primary goal of the project is to create courses that are effective in helping students learn complex content deeply enough to transfer to novel situations, while engaging them in consequential work with important ideas. To provide a tough test of our courses, we have chosen to design them in the Advanced Placement context. AP courses have come under fire recently for emphasizing breadth over depth of learning, resulting in an overemphasis on memorization of disconnected information and little transfer. However, AP courses are also seen as the current “gold standard” of rigorous high school coursework, and the national AP tests are viewed as valid measures of student learning of advanced material. Therefore, one of our indicators of PBL course success was that students in our courses pass the AP test at the same or better rates as students taught in more traditional versions of AP courses.

At the same time, we wanted to try to develop tests that would be better measures of deep learning and flexible transfer. For each course we have created a Complex Scenario Test (CST) that requires students to address a novel complex problem using the knowledge and skills that they have learned in their AP course. While these courses and the attendant scoring procedures are still under development, the data suggest that we are making progress in that direction.

Finally, we wanted to engage students in consequential work using the knowledge and skills they learned through our PBL courses. The intent was for students to think deeply to see connections to their lives, and to improve learning. But we also want students to think of themselves as people who participate in decision-making in a democracy. Thus we have also gathered data on their interest and identity development related to government and the environment.

(1) We have received additional support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

The project has evolved in stages, which are summarized in the following sections.

The beginning of the BSD/GLEF/UW anchored collaboration

In 2007, GLEF Vice Chair Steve Arnold approached Mike Riley, then Superintendent of the Bellevue School District, about the possibility of collaborating on research on project-based learning. BSD is a relatively well-resourced urban/suburban district that serves approximately 18,000 students. Dr. Riley had been a long-time advocate of Advanced Placement courses for all students. Under his leadership and guidance, BSD had been successful in enrolling a high percentage of students in AP courses and had garnered attention for this accomplishment in the national press. GLEF, desirous of a “strong” test of project-based learning in high school and familiar with Riley and district’s reputation, wanted the research and design to be conducted in the context of the “gold standard” for rigor at the high school level: the Advanced Placement course. Concurrently, Dr. Arnold approached John Bransford of the University of Washington about his interest in serving as a principal investigator on a collaborative, GLEF-funded research project to explore the efficacy of project-based learning in a rigorous academic environment – as represented by high school AP courses. The goal of the initial project was to investigate whether well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning in upper level high school courses could result in the same or better performance on a standardized test, such as the AP, and improve performance on measures of deeper learning.

At the same time, Riley was collaborating with John Bransford and other researchers from the University of Washington’s College of Education and from the newly founded LIFE Center (Learning in Informal and Formal Learning Environments), a National Science Foundation – Sciences of Learning Center. Bransford, Riley, and their teams had been involved in an anchored collaboration re-visioning BSD’s core curriculum and pedagogical practices from the perspective of state-of-the-art research on learning. The teams were engaged in a series of meetings and design charrettes focused on enhancing student learning in BSD classrooms using problem- and project-based approaches.

With this convergence of the UW-COE and LIFE Center researchers’ interests and expertise, work with GLEF and BSD on AP courses was a natural and fortunate evolution of the growing partnership. Over the course of the 2007-8 school year, this collaboration laid the groundwork for the Knowledge in Action Project. The group settled on APGOV as the first course to be redesigned and added content experts to the team, including: Walter Parker, Professor of Social Studies Education; John Wilkerson, Professor of Political Science; Don Myers, an experienced APGOV teacher; John Brill, BSD’s Social Studies curriculum specialist; and LIFE Center members Susan Mosborg, Hank Clark, and Nancy Vye. This group became the core design team for the course that was implemented in Bellevue classrooms the following year.2

Expansion to AP Environmental Science course and move from suburban to urban areas

After initially promising results on APGOV in Bellevue in 2008-9 and 2009-10, the Knowledge in Action Project expanded in two major ways. First, the collaborative undertook the development of AP Environmental Science (APES) the second PBL-AP course. Using the same model as APGOV, the APES course was co-designed by BSD teachers & curriculum specialists, and UW content and learning experts. In 2010-11, the new APES course was implemented and researched for the first time in BSD classrooms.

(2) Results of these first two implementation years were reported in three publications: (1) Parker, W. C., Mosborg, S., Bransford, J. D., Vye, N. J., Wilkerson, J., & Abbott, R. (2011). Rethinking advanced high school coursework: Tackling the depth/breadth tension in the AP US Government and Politics course. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43(4), 533-559. (2) Boss, S., Johanson, C., Arnold, S. D., Parker, W. C., Nguyen, D., Mosborg, S., et al. (2011). The quest for deeper learning and engagement in advanced high school courses. Foundation Review, 3(3), 12-23. (3) Parker, W., Lo, J., Yeo, A. J., Valencia, S. W., Nguyen, D., Abbott, R. D., et al. (2013). Beyond breadth-speed-test: Toward deeper knowing and engagement in an Advanced Placement course. American Educational Research Journal, 50(6), 1424-1459.

In addition to iterative development of APGOV and new course design and research related to APES, we began working with poverty-impacted urban school systems – first in the San Francisco Bay Area, California in 2011, then in Seattle, Washington during 2011-2012 and most recently in Des Moines, Iowa during 2012-2013.

Our urban school collaboration began when we were approached by the Envision charter network in the Bay Area. Envision emphasized project-based learning and preparing disadvantaged students for college. The network leadership wanted to begin offering AP courses to their students and thought our courses might be a good fit. This initial collaboration with Envision has enriched the project and our team’s understanding of the challenges faced by students in urban schools, who bring wider diversity of background knowledge, skills, and exposure to the “AP culture”. As a result of encountering various challenges with implementing our curricula in urban schools the project has evolved to focus more closely on those challenges. This expanded focus then was important when teachers from Seattle Public Schools joined the effort, and later Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools.

Our relationship with the four districts has varied over time in terms of direct support to teachers by the research team (versus school district support) and the kind of data collected (although AP and CST data have been collected each year from all schools). The data from studying implementation across these diverse settings raised many issues, leading us to expand our focus to include two additional areas: supporting students’ productive disciplinary engagement and supporting their (and their teachers’) use of text.