Project-based learning (PBL) has long been established to be an innovative, effective way of teaching students by immersing them in real world applications of the subjects they are studying. It also encourages engagement and collaborative problem-solving, which helps the information to stick in the minds of students.
Recent research on project-based learning has shown that not only does PBL improve student engagement and interest in STEM subjects, but research shows that NGSS-aligned, PBL curricula levels the playing field for all students:
“When researchers analyzed test scores from those classrooms by students’ gender and ethnicity, there were no differences in learning performance. That’s a preliminary indication that high-quality project-based curricula might be able to help narrow the science education achievement gap in children from low-income backgrounds or other groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields.” — Ingfei Chen (Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?)
PBL is so successful that it’s being adopted by schools near and far. Around the world, schools are choosing project-based learning (or a variation of project-based learning) as their preferred learning mechanism for STEM students (Global Trends in Project Based Learning: From the UK, to Finland and Beyond!).
Accountability in “Project Families”
A new, thought-provoking proposal for PBL in higher education was recently outlined in an article by Naman Trivedi (senior in the School of Foreign Service), and Rohan Shetty (senior in the McDonough School of Business). Their PBL thought experiment was inspired by a Georgetown University course, “Designing the Future of the University: Redesigning Georgetown for the Global Century,” taught by professors Randy Bass (@RandyBassGU), and Ann Pendleton-Julian.
The course asks students to design a university for the year 2030 and to model “what a degree might look like that is wholly or partially project-based.” Students are expected to consider the following questions:
— If we were designing a university for the year 2030, what would it look like?
— What kinds of education will be needed in the year 2030?
— What will the conditions of knowledge, technology, learning and work be in 15 years?
— What kind of graduate would we want to produce?
It’s compelling, to say the least, to imagine the university of the future and what students will need to be adequately educated for careers in society thirty years from now. Lauren MacGuidwin and Soumyajit Mazumder (two students in the University as Design course) explain this student-centered experiment:
“The University as a Design Problem course might be considered a petri dish allowing new systems of thought to thrive, encouraging self-regulated abstract and critical thinking, and driving project-based growth to give students a small glimpse into the futures of the university they, themselves, imagine.” (The University as Design, Part 1)
When it comes to college education, there is a growing opinion that the focus should be on a robust, real-world learning experience. Many now believe that the traditional, formal style of learning that relies on rote memorization and recitation of facts (prevalent in most schools in the US), is not the best way of teaching.
In their proposal to the problem of designing the ideal university of the future, Trivedy and Shetty’s believes that project-based learning is the foundation of innovation in higher education:
“We believe that formalized, course-based teaching fails to make learning integrative and high-impact, and it is imperative that Georgetown work to promote knowledge synthesis through collaborative projects for students.
We would like to see a shift from the formal course-based education to creative labs. This move would create a more engaging learning experience that better integrates skills that students will take into the future. In our model, students would enroll in project families that reverse the course-centric learning model. These project families, in a sense, are creative labs that focus on particular topics that are shaped by university mentors to guide students in the creation or exploration of their own projects.”
The ‘Project Family’ involves classes, but there is a lot of ownership on the student to choose what knowledge they need, and where they should obtain it — it’s almost entirely student-centered and focuses on integrative, collaborative, real-world learning (you’d be hard-pressed to find a classroom lecture in this proposed model).
Trivedy and Shetty explain how project families would work:
“Instead of taking classes from a predefined course list for obtaining a Classics degree, what if you worked on four major projects during your time at Georgetown that furthered your major focus? Your first project could be writing a paper, say on Romans and society. After you complete that, you will unlock a high literature project family, where you will work on retranslation and a publication. After that, you have the option to join an exhibition building project family, where you work on a museum exhibition downtown at the Smithsonian. And finally, you will move into your fourth project family at Georgetown — a site recreation project where you have the option to design an extensive blueprint of an ancient Greek temple.”
According to Trivedy and Shetty, this model would combine the best of all worlds organically and most effectively:
“Developing a skills-based core could improve the accrual of skills and competencies such as cultural history, information visualization, computer science, research, writing and communication, as well as to project-based learning. In tandem with these skills–based courses, students would be required to enroll in broad-idea seminars that serve to provide “packets” of liberal arts education.”
It’s a question that hovers over any proposal on education reform: How will students be adequately assessed? Trivedy and Shetty have left no stone unturned. Their idea of assessment for students in the university of the future doesn’t include rigorious testing. Instead, they envision the student’s course work having a direct impact on their potential employability:
“Students will be able to represent their coursework and progress in a much more comprehensive way to employers using a portfolio — their vitae — that is a culmination of project work in which the student has engaged. This portfolio will allow employers to see a project’s product and instantly be able to gauge the student’s abilities, skills and potential for growth.”
Could this PBL model (or something like this) be the future of higher education? Will “project families” lead the way? It’s too early to tell, but it’s safe to say that PBL has a key place in the future of education, not just at college level, but at all levels of learning, and in all subjects.
It’s inspiring to see college students being challenged to develop a future model of education based on project-based learning. And it’s especially inspiring to see them present innovative PBL models. Last year, IT’S ABOUT TIME® sponsored a group of college students from MIT and Harvard University who spent their Summer riding their bikes cross-country, teaching elementary school students in low-income communities STEM subjects using project-based learning (Project-Based learning with Heart: STEM Students Give Back and Get Valuable Life-Lessons in Return). They’re goal was to help young students embrace science and engineering by participating in fun, engaging, project-based activities. Mission accomplished!
College students are enthusiastically stepping up to the PBL-plate! It’s exciting to see. We couldn’t agree more with Trivedy and Shetty on this point:
“We need to create a learning environment that is high-impact and collaborative in order to ensure that students will be more prepared to contribute in the 21st-century workforce.”
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