A Brief Comment on Problem and Project-based Learning in the Classroom

Over the past few years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some experts on problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) through my courses in the School of Sustainability.  The idea behind this is to allow students to self-guide and direct their learning through engagement beyond the classroom.  Rather than having lecture-based classes, PPBL shifts the role of the instructor from “sage on the stage” to “guide from the side”.

The basic tenets (per Katja Brundiers, who has taught me about PPBL) are to create a learning environment where students work:

  • on “wicked problems” in sustainability,
  • in collaborative teams,
  • conducting self-directed research to investigate an issue,
  • simulating and/or engaging with real-world settings and developing life skills, and
  • reflecting on their learning, the group processes, and project outcomes.

It uses projects to convey two sets of learning – the core material of the course and skills in project management and team-building.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this in the classroom ranging from less self-directed learning in more traditional class settings to highly self-directed and real-world oriented.  I have used two formats in my own work.  The first is a group project which formed the core deliverables in a traditional class setting.  The second is a workshop course structured entirely around a real-world sustainability project – a sustainability consulting engagement, if you will.

In the classroom

The traditional class experience of PPBL divided the class up into small groups of 5 (12 groups in a class of 60).  The groups all selected from a handful of projects across a range of real-world issues in the community.  Examples included working with the Arizona State Land Department on conservation on public land, working on community engagement in the clean-up efforts of a Superfund site, looking at transportation options in a low-income section of Phoenix, and  so on.  The students were required to split the project up into sub-projects and have each team member investigate a portion of the project.  Some groups divided up around stakeholder groups.  Others took on various aspects of the project (the economics, the ecological component, the political/policy issues, etc).  They then prepared individual papers on their aspect of the problems being confronted in their project.  The next deliverable was a team presentation on the overall problem, integrating the individual components.  They also presented potential solutions.  After the presentation, they then began researching, as a group, which solution to recommend.  Throughout this, the students had some engagement with the external stakeholder, who also served as mentors (as well as judges for the presentations).  The projects had varying degrees of interaction between students and stakeholders.

In the workshop

The workshop course was a two semester course.  The first semester had graduate students working with external stakeholders to develop projects.  For this past term, we had projects on composting at the community-level (both institutionally at ASU and in providing a service to local restaurants), on urban farming and developing a student farm, and on building a retreat center for a sustainability consulting group using alternative building designs (rammed earth, straw bale, cord wood).  The grad students spent the fall creating the project frameworks and developing educational components around a number of skills and competencies that they would teach undergraduates in the spring.

This spring the three graduate student led projects interviewed and selected undergraduates for the class.  The students work in teams on 4 on the projects.  Class is structured around skill building once a week followed by a lab session where the teams meet to further their project.  They meet with the external stakeholders, conduct research (surveys, focus groups, semi-structured interviews, standard archival research), and prepare reports, presentations, and other feedback to the grad students and external project partners.  In the process, the grad students use the projects to convey educational material on sustainability and skill development.  The students gain knowledge, project experience, and real-world learning that they can use to convey their expertise as they approach graduation and pursue their careers.

I must admit that I’m still a novice, experimenting with new methods to instruct and to develop my students.  These are first steps to break free of old, dated modes of education.  Thoughts?

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