Posts Tagged ‘PPBL’

Student projects in Sustainability

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am teaching two courses this semester – one undergraduate course (Policy and Governance in Sustainable Systems) and one graduate course (Applied Projects, as a Capstone or Culminating Experience).  Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share what some of these project teams have undertaken.  The results are quite amazing.

This week, I want to focus on a project led by Sigma Dolins called Maus Haus (  Maus Haus is a tiny house (136 sq ft), entirely built by students.  They have designed it to feature as many issues of green, sustainable building as possible.  It has been built with recycled SIP (structural insulated panels), will have a composting toilet (not as icky as you might think), solar panels for all energy needs, and on-demand hot water.  It is an amazing example of sustainable living.

The finished project will be used for educational outreach with ASU’s Sustainability GK-12 programs, promoting a number of features that can be incorporated in construction projects.

For more see the fantastic video that the team put together:

The video was made for fundraising purposes.  Whether that holds any interest to you is beside the point, what they have done is pretty cool.  Take a look and see.

Sustainability Consulting Services

Over the past year, I have had the wonderful experience of working with some of the most motivated and hardworking students that I have ever met.  I serve as faculty advisor for Greenlight Solutions, a student sustainability consulting organization that is rapidly growing beyond the bounds of campus.  Their website,, highlights their vision of their organization, their approach to sustainability, and some of their early success stories and client engagements.

To summarize their vision and mission, I see their work flowing along two parallel tracks.  First, they are engaged with a number of real-world clients (WWF- World Wildlife Fund, General Dynamics, Orcutt-Winslow Architecture, Phoenix Metro, among several others).  For their clients, they deliver professional sustainability solutions to challenges that these companies face.  Second, they provide educational training for students and, more importantly, experiential learning opportunities for their members with real stakeholders.  In both, they are succeeding wildly and positioning themselves for success in their future careers.

The organization currently has around 25 members working on 6 projects with plans to grow over the next two years to 100 members engaged on 20 projects.  They are also in the process of developing satellite chapters at other universities.

As my previous posts have alluded, much of my teaching and mentoring involves problem and project-based learning approaches where students must find solution options to real world problems and challenges, not made for the classroom assignments.  Greenlight Solutions takes this approach to the next level by providing the means and mechanisms for students to find their own challenges and sense of purpose.  With that comes valued experience, a burgeoning network of contacts in the fields in which they want to work, the satisfaction of doing a good job, and the enjoyment of working with a well-functioning team.  If everyone’s work did the same, well, wouldn’t that be a nice thought.

A New Application of Problem and Project-Based Learning

At the end of last summer, I wrote about an experimental approach to my 200-level undergraduate class, Systems Thinking, that used problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) techniques in the classroom.  As a lower-division course, I focused on more interactive approaches rather than real-world opportunities and outcomes.  I had student discussion leaders kick off each class by discussing a few key questions from the readings of the day.  I then had a Think-Pair-Share session where students spent a few minutes making notes to themselves in response to a question that I posed them.  They then partnered with a neighbor to discuss this for a few minutes.  Finally, the groups of two or three students then shared their discussion with the rest of the class for an extended group session.  The class ended with rapporteurs summarizing the day’s topics.

In general, this worked very well.  For those interested in trying a similar approach in your own class or training sessions, I would highly recommend it.  I’d also be happy to discuss in more detail.  The key is in crafting appropriate questions for the audience.  I do plan on changing a few aspects of this in the future.  First, the discussion leads often wandered away from the questions and into overviews or summaries of the readings.  This often took too long, led to misunderstandings or went in directions different from those that I had intended.  Second, the Think-Pair-Share sessions only work with some material and should be used with discretion.  Third, the reports from the rapporteurs took up time without adding a great deal.  However, the rapporteurs’ notes were invaluable.  I was able to post these to the course website.  Because they were being graded, they were generally quite thorough.  Also, there were always at least 2 student rapporteurs, so they tended to reinforce each other.  The main benefit was that they allowed the rest of the class to focus on the discussion without worrying about taking detailed notes.  It improved the performance (learning outcomes) of the entire class.

This semester I am teaching a 300-level environmental policy class.  I intend to use a similar format, except that I plan to augment it with a bit more lecture given that most class sessions have some more technical aspects that I want to cover myself.  I also intend to link this with the PPBL work that I’ve used in past versions of this course.  I link student project teams with local NGOs, municipal governments, or State agencies to help provide solutions to real-world challenges.  The students use what they learn in the course to help address problems that others face – the exact type of work that many of the students hope to engage with in their future careers.  They listen to the stakeholders present the issues.  Then working in teams, they present their findings in written reports and in presentations to the stakeholders themselves.  As a result, the students receive direct feedback on their work beyond the grades in a class.  They see the tangible contributions that they can make to society through what they’ve learned in class.

The semester starts next Monday.  We’ll see how it goes.

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?