Auburn professor will use grant to bring social studies to life for K-12 students

AUBURN – Auburn University’s John Saye wants social studies teachers to challenge their students to do more than remember names, places and dates.

With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Saye, a professor of social science education in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching, along with colleagues at Indiana University and New Mexico State University, will look for ways to help teachers use new technological tools for problem-based learning.

The project is titled “PBL-TECH: Using Web 2.0 Tools and Resources to Support Problem-Based Curricular Innovations in Pre-Service Teacher Education.” The total funding is $749,853 for three years, with Saye’s share of the overall award being $150,791.

Saye said that K-12 students are far more likely to remember details like names, places and dates when they are challenged to think critically about the challenges historical figures faced. In his capacity as co-director of the Persistent Issues in History Network, Saye encourages educators to develop problem-based learning strategies.

For instance, if a class happens to be studying the American Revolution or the Civil Rights Movement, a teacher could stimulate student discussion by posing the following question: “When are citizens justified in disobeying established authority?”

“Kids don’t like social studies,” Saye said. “They see it as memorizing names and dates. Problem-based learning presents the subject to kids in a way that involves real people. We ask them to deal with questions that people have had to deal with throughout time. They learn a lot more deeply and retain more that way.”

Saye and his partners – Thomas Brush, associate dean for teacher education and associate professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University’s School of Education and Krista Glazewski, associate professor of Learning Technologies at New Mexico State University – believe educators will engage students more effectively by using interactive technology.

“I think things like Twitter offer a lot of possibilities,” Saye said. “In social studies, in the real world, Twitter has had a dramatic impact on politics and in coordinating social protest. We know our students are using those kinds of things. That’s a big part of the first step of this project, to do some conceptualization of what tools exist now. What can we recommend to teachers and teacher educators as the most promising tools available now?”

Saye said he and his colleagues hope the project will inspire more universities to develop problem-based learning models for teacher education and, ultimately, integrate those same approaches in K-12 school systems. If that happens, more students may come to view their social studies classes differently.

“We’re talking about students wrestling with dilemmas that people in a particular place and time wrestled with,” Saye said. “Those are the issues they are going to struggle with as adults because those questions do come up.”

(Contributed by Troy Johnson.)

Contact: Troy Johnson, (334) 844-4468 (, or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (