Integrating problem-based learning in the high school science curriculum: a service learning opportunity for undergraduate science students

Integrating problem-based learning in the high school science curriculum: a service learning opportunity for undergraduate science students


Despite the benefits of student engagement in service learning, its application is limited in the sciences. This project was designed to fill this gap and provide undergraduate chemistry and environmental science students with an opportunity to engage in service learning by developing and implementing an educational program in the Peel District School Board (PDSB). High school curriculum was the target of this project as the Ontario Public School Boards Association has recently encouraged the use of innovative teaching practices in classes across the province. Therefore based on this need, students in the research opportunity program (ROP) at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) (now replaced by CPS401Y) develop problem-based learning (PBL) activities for high school chemistry and environmental science classes. PBL is a pedagogy centered on student-driven learning, where students are required to discover what information is needed to address the problem posed. The PBL activities developed by UTM students were originally implemented by the UTM students working with a teacher at the Port Credit Secondary School. Problems were also made available on a website to allow other schools (and post-secondary institutions) to adapt the activities to their classrooms. The project aligns well with the President’s first priority: Leverage our Urban Location More Fully, for the mutual benefit of university and city. Furthermore, the service learning delivery of the PBL problems in schools highlights Experiential Learning and Urban and Community Engagement.


Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, University of Toronto Misssisauga;

Department of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.

Project lead(s)

Professor Judith Poë, Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, University of Toronto Misssisauga;

Professor Barbara Murck, Department of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga;

Year LEAF Granted


Funding Stream


LEAF Priority Area(s)

Experiential Learning


Impact of the Project on Students

Undergraduates were at the heart of this project. They were provided with a service-learning opportunity in which they developed original learning materials for use in secondary school science classes. They benefitted especially from the interdisciplinary collaborations between the chemistry and the environmental science students and we look forward to engaging students from other CPS disciplines in these projects.

Summer 2018 – CHM299Y and CHM398H – 8

Fall 2018 – CHM399Y – 10

Fall 2019 – CHM399Y and ENV399Y – 14

Fall 2020 – CPS401Y – 10

Impact of the Project on Faculty

The project resulted in the introduction of a new course, CPS401Y, Research and Development in Science Education. It is now open not only to chemistry and environmental science students, but also to students in the other CPS disciplines – astronomy, earth science, and physics – whose faculty may supervise discipline specific projects..

Resources Developed from the Project

Many of the PBL problems created by the undergraduate students have been mounted on a website, , which has been accessed by teachers from across the country.

Two publications and one conference presentation have resulted from this project:

  • David Armstrong, Barbara Murck, and Judith Poë*, “Service Learning Opportunity for Undergraduate Science Students: Integrating Problem–Based Learning in the High School Science Curriculum,” J. Chem. Ed. 2021. 98, 4, 1275–1282.
  • Poë, J., “A Service Learning Partnership between the University of Toronto Mississauga and Ontario Secondary Schools” 53-55 in The Scholarship of Leading: Mini-cases of Educational Leadership in Action, ed. C. Rolheiser, A. Carbone, E. Macnab, J. Ye, Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, University of Toronto, (2019)
  • Armstrong, D., Pugliese, S., Poë, J., “A Service Learning University Partnership with Secondary Schools,” 102nd Canadian Chemistry Conference & Exhibition, Quebec City, QC (2019)

Future Plans

The results of the project continue through CPS401Y and through the national and international use of the materials on our PBL website. Overall, I would describe this LEAF grant as transformative for all involved, including the post-doctoral fellows who contributed to it.

Partnership(s) Development

One aim of this project was to interest secondary school teachers in active learning pedagogies such as problem-based learning and assist them in initiating the use of these pedagogies in their classroom by providing them with the teaching materials.

From one school, Port Credit Secondary School, and one teacher, we have expanded to partnerships with five schools and nine teachers, all with an interest in continuing their participation.

Teachers report, and we have observed, that often students who are not high achievers in the traditional classroom positively respond to the PBL pedagogy. They report that their students enjoy the challenge of the PBL projects and ask to do more of them. Although visits to the schools were halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we did manage to continue with a few virtual classroom visits during this time.