T2 - The Malaria Mission
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Learning Issues
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  Investigation/ Exploration
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  Resolution/ Refinement
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The goal of the first phase of a problem-based unit is to motivate students, to rouse their interest and to cause them to ask questions - to engage them in the problem situation. You do this, first, by presenting them with an intriguing scenario, and second, by initiating a lively discussion about the situation you have initiated.


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You remember smiling with satisfaction when you read the headlines. You had high hopes that the Gates Foundation would fund the malaria grants. Now the funding has come through -- and here you are on your way to Mozambique!

Soon after the Gates Foundation announcement, you were asked to join a special team working on the vaccine research grant. This team, of which you agreed to be a member, is comprised of an interesting group of people: geographers, economists, public health officials, and public relations personnel, among others. Your team is large, but so is its mission. You take out the letter PDF you received from the Project Manager and review the responsibilities outlined for your team:

  • to select four countries in Africa to serve as sites for the clinical trials of a promising new vaccine
  • to develop a plan for reaching and vaccinating as many people as possible in each selected country

Indeed a daunting mission but one that is crucial to the success of the overall project.

You put the letter away and begin to think ahead. When you arrive in Mozambique you will go directly to the Manhica Health Research Center where you will meet with other members of your team and the grant’s project staff. You are eager to arrive and get to work. You are on a tight time frame. Your decisions must be made carefully, but quickly, so that the clinical trials can begin as soon as possible.


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You begin the discussion with general questions, then you guide students to identify what they know and what they need to know to begin work on this problem situation. You want to help them formulate good questions, identify their assumptions, recognize relevant issues, and finally to begin to plan their investigation.

Questions you might ask just to get the discussion started:

  • Why would the Gates Foundation give all that money to fight malaria in Africa?
  • Malaria is not a problem here in the U.S. Why is it such a problem there?
  • What are we being asked to do in this problem?
  • Where is Mozambique? Why would we be going there?
  • etc. (whatever questions you think would get your students started thinking and talking)
Inquiry is essential in PBL. If you would like to read more about the metacognitive aspect of inquiry (i.e., helping students think about their own thinking and learning) please see the brief paper on Metacognitive Inquiry PDF by clicking here or by going to the Professional Information Center.


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After you and your students have discussed the situation a short while, you can introduce a Learning Issues Board. This is a simple visual organizer that guides students to consider and record what they know and what they need to know in order to investigate the situation. Some teachers add a third column that has students list where they could get the information they need.

Questions that might be asked and recorded on Learning Issues Board:

  • What do we know about this problem?
  • What do we know about Africa?
  • What do we know about malaria?
  • How do we know that?
  • What do we need to know?
  • Why is that important to find out?
  • Can any of these items that we've listed be grouped together or combined in some way?
  • How shall we order/sequence our investigation? Are there things that need to be done before we do other things?
  • Are any pieces of information especially important?
  • What questions should be answered first?
  • Where might we find the answers?
  • How should we divide the questions among us?

You probably will want to add a What We Found Out column during the Investigation phase, so it's a good idea to put the chart on big sheets of paper to post on a classroom wall and leave up for the duration of the unit. The Learning Issues Board should be visible, revisited, and updated throughout the problem-solving experience. Regular updating is a good instructional technique, too, in that it provides opportunities for review and information sharing. Click below to see a sample Learning Issues Board for The Malaria Mission or to get a blank version to give to your students. A blank version is also available to students in the Student Investigation Center.

Learning Issues Board - Sample-1 PDF


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Narrowing the Selection
One of the questions that undoubtedly was asked when you and your students listed items on the Learning Issues Board was, “How do we select the four countries?” This is indeed a daunting task without some guidelines. It might be best if you narrowed the field for your students by having them select the four from a field of eight to ten. You could do this by a communication from the Project Director saying that eight countries are candidates for the initial field trials of the new vaccine and that the job of the Special Team is to select four from those eight. (We call these scenario additions “Pointers.” You will read more about Pointers in the next section.) A sample memo is provided for you here.


Feel free to change the eight countries to suit your needs. We included these particular eight to be representative of the geographical regions of Africa. We also included some countries that have a critical problem with malaria and others that have virtually no problem (currently), but you may want to make sure other variables are considered, such as type of government, economic status, etc.

Selection Criteria
Now comes the important part – thinking about the criteria for selection and deciding what information to gather on each of the candidate countries.

Since the first of the special team’s responsibilities should be completed before the second begins, it might be good to move right into considering selection criteria during the Engagement phase. Using guided inquiry, lead your students to identify relevant criteria. Questions you might ask include:

  • What characteristics would we look for in a country in which to conduct a clinical trial PDF? Why is that characteristic important?
  • Should the four countries we select have the same characteristics, or should they be different? Why?
  • Are some of these criteria more important than others?

This is a good opportunity to encourage your students to begin to think like professionals. In order to encourage such disciplinary thinking you could ask:

  • What do you think the public health official on your team would consider important? How about the geographer? the economist? the communications expert?

If you know professionals in these areas who could serve as resources to your students, this would be an excellent time to call upon them. Ask if they would participate in the discussion and suggest relevant criteria to consider for the countries under consideration. Students could contact them via phone or email, or you could have them come to your class.

We have included a few video clips from professionals we have interviewed about selection criteria. Click below to hear what they suggest.

Biologist QuickTime

Pharmacologist QuickTime

Economist QuickTime

Geographer QuickTime

Judith Howard, Educator and T2 Project Director QuickTime

Keep the list of possible selection criteria for later refinement but go ahead and have students decide what information to gather.

Data Collection and Organization
Once your students have established categories to investigate, it is a perfect time for them to start a database. You could have them use the database shell Access included in the Professional Information Center, modifying it to include their information categories, or if some of your students are interested, you could have a small group create one for the team to use.

Task #1: Database Creation HTML

Throughout the next few days as your students gather data, they should enter it directly into the database.


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As an extension of the Engagement Phase, or as you begin the Investigation Phase, you might want to lead your students through the steps of a problem-solving strategy, particularly if they are new to problem solving. Click below to take a look at a strategy we call the "PGP HAM" strategy. Teachers and students who have used it have found it to be helpful. For some tips on how to teach a strategy to students, see the paper on Universal Design for Learning PDF where you will find a section on scaffolding strategy instruction.



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Go to the Investigation/Exploration HTMLsection to get started on your investigation.


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Before you proceed, please take a moment to go to the Communication Center and share your experiences HTML with us.


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