Classroom Projects That Engaged My High School Students


Keeping students engaged while trying to teach them monotonous material can often be a challenge. If you find yourself having trouble getting your class to participate, check out these fun and challenging ideas.

Engaging Students

Today's high school students have shorter attention spans and are more easily distracted than ever. With an endless array of movies, video games, and mobile devices providing constant distraction, it's harder than ever to design projects for the classroom that are both intellectually stimulating and engaging.

bored students

In my own classrooms, I often find myself dealing with the same issue: how to develop lessons that are entertaining, but still convey the necessary information? After some experimentation, I was able to find a few ideas that managed to answer this question. The following list contains a rundown of the projects that I found most engaging.

CSI Science: An Exercise in Fingerprinting

As the old adage goes, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.' Crime dramas such as CSI and NCIS are extremely popular these days, which makes for an interesting educational opportunity.

Fingerprinting techniques are a common item on most high school curricula, but in order to help your students feel more involved, the onus is on you to design an intriguing narrative that will lure your students' interest. The last time we performed this lesson in my class, I informed my class that a high-profile politician had been murdered and the 'detectives' (my students) had until the end of the period to find the fingerprint and identify the murderer, or else the 'DA' (me) would have their badges.

There's no shortage of possible scenarios for you to think up, and the dramatic element is guaranteed to improve engagement. Rather than simply performing science and learning, your students will feel like forensic scientists trying to crack the case.

Toothpick Puzzles

Whereas the fingerprinting project acknowledges the prevalence of technology in the classroom and society as a whole, this next project represents an homage to simpler days. Toothpick puzzles are a great way to pass the time, and they help teach children valuable geometric visualization skills.

The concept is simple: make a shape, then leave instructions for how it is to be modified. Examples include making four squares, and then asking students to remove one toothpick so that only three squares remain, or making a pig and asking students to remove toothpicks so that its legs are moving in the opposite direction. The possibilities are virtually endless. For added fun, ask your class to design your own puzzles and see if they can stump you.

Toothpick puzzles can be utilized in just about any situation; they can serve as a standalone task, or they can be used to help students pass the time when they have finished an exam early.

Creative Groupwork

It's every teacher's nightmare: a class discussion where no one wants to discuss. You start by voicing your own opinions, but when you open up the floor, you're greeted with silence. In most cases, this is not because students are ignorant. Of course, there will always be a select few who did not do the reading, but I've found that even my brightest students sometimes need help opening up.


To combat this, try using groups and partner work to better engage your students. Activities to try include:

  • Group Go-Around: Divide your class into smaller groups of about five or six (adjust size depending on overall class size). Present each group with a topic related to the lesson of the day. Ask one student to begin by sharing his or her thoughts. After this student finishes, the student next to him or her begins, and the process continues until each student has had a chance to speak.
  • Pair-Share Dialogues: Have your students pair off with a partner and then present an idea, problem, or topic to the class. Students then take turns responding to the prompt; give each student about a minute or so to speak. After the time has elapsed, call on students and have them paraphrase their partner's argument.

The goal of these exercises is to get the ball rolling, so to speak. By removing the spotlight and creating a more intimate setting with smaller groups, you can help your students feel more comfortable, which in turn leads to more intensive discussions.

group discussion

As the group discussion becomes a class discussion, encourage students to consider the ideas that have already been expressed. Do they agree with their peers, or disagree? Why or why not?

Further Inspiration

After giving these ideas a shot, you may be wondering where you go from here. With any luck, these suggestions have given you some ideas of your own, which you can now use to develop and implement a whole host of fresh and engaging projects.

As mentioned above, the internet plays a large role in the struggle to keep young minds focused on education, but it can also be used as a source of inspiration. Online communities such as Pinterest have thousands of creative ideas for high school teachers around the world.

engaged class

As you experiment with various endeavors, be sure to keep an eye on your students' reactions. Is there a particular activity that they seem to like? Is there anything that seems to make them particularly attentive? By gauging your class's response to various projects, you can develop a sense of the type of projects that may prove to be especially beneficial and productive.

By Bill Sands
March 2017
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