College-level project-based learning gains popularity

College-level project-based learning gains popularity

Taken from Physics Today. Dated 06.17

When Haley Jane Hancock enrolled at Quest University Canada, she planned to focus on creative writing. But she switched to physics after taking “Energy and Matter,” a required first-semester course. Students were challenged to independently devise methods to measure the speed of sound and to show that energy is conserved in a pendulum. “A new problem was thrown at you every day or so,” she says. “You had to figure it out. I wanted more problems and longer-term problems. I got addicted to the lab.”

Quest, in Squamish, British Columbia, is marking its 10th year this fall. It is among a small but growing number of institutions that are embracing project-based learning. Implementation varies, but the crosscutting aims are to motivate students and prepare them for the changing needs of the modern world and workplace. Learning by doing is a common thread. In the process, students are to develop into team players and effective communicators.

“Instruction tends to be faculty-as-coach more than faculty-as-expert,” says Mark Somerville of Olin College of Engineering. The 15-year-old institution in Needham, Massachusetts, serves as a model to other places interested in moving in the direction of project-based learning. Because students seek information as they need it, he says, instruction tends to be “just-in-time, as opposed to just-in-case,” as is more traditional in higher education.

The hands-on, interdisciplinary, socially conscious approach common to project-based learning seems to make engineering and other traditionally male-dominated fields more appealing to women. For example, when Harvey Mudd College revamped required courses in computer science a decade ago and in engineering this year, the classes went from “being the most hated to the most loved,” says college president Maria Klawe. For the engineering course, she says, “we have 20 years of data showing males outperforming females.” But once it had real-life context and was more project-based, “both males and females performed better, and there was no gender difference in performance.”

Real-life problems

From the start, Olin College’s mission was to transform engineering education. During the planning stages, “a bunch of us sat around and asked ourselves what we remembered from college,” recalls the college’s president, Rick Miller. “We could all remember in stunning detail our senior projects. I can even remember what I was eating! Why did we wait to do them until the senior year? And why only do one project?”

The planners decided to test whether they could build a curriculum based on solving real-life problems. A pilot group of fresh high school graduates was split into teams and given a challenge: In the next five weeks, design and build a pulse oximeter to measure a person’s blood oxygen level. “We didn’t know what would happen,” says Miller. The students blew a lot of transistors and their device was clunky, but it—and the test—worked.

“We learned two things,” he says. “You don’t need two years of calculus and physics to make things work. And, more important, the impact of the experience was profound. It was as if [the students] were two feet taller. Their attitude was ‘anything I can dream up, I can do.’ ” The Olin planners repeated the experiment and decided that they had been underestimating what students are capable of. “It’s about adventure, as a team. The teamwork is hugely important,” Miller says.

Today, an Olin graduate will have done two to three dozen projects, ranging from building mechatronics devices to starting a business to identifying and designing a solution for a societal challenge. Recent projects have led to products and services for stay-at-home dads, doulas, the elderly, homeless people, and winter surfers. Says Somerville, “It’s about understanding the group of people and their needs, and then proposing a product that will solve a problem.” The students, he says, come out of such projects with empathy.

Incomparable depth

Quest, a liberal arts and sciences college, shares a pedagogical philosophy with Olin (see the Q&A with Quest founder David Strangway on Physics Today’s website). Like Olin, it takes a project-based, interdisciplinary approach that bestows trust and responsibility on students. Both schools are small and private with tuition coming to about $25000 (for Olin, that’s after merit-based scholarships are factored in); Quest accepts 200 students a year and Olin takes 84. One difference is that Quest divides the academic year into eight three-and-a-half-week blocks, with one course per block. And there are no majors; students graduate with a bachelor of arts and sciences degree.

The first two years consist of 16 required courses, with some flexibility, such as a choice among humanities, social sciences, and math topics. Early on, everyone takes rhetoric to learn writing and communication skills. At the end of the second year, students formulate a question and a related plan of study for their final two years.

Hancock built a gas chromatograph from scratch as part of addressing her question, How does experimentation advance understanding of the physical universe? She used her project to show what one can build with off-the-shelf supplies. Another student delved into philosophy, quantum mechanics, and societal implications to analyze her question, How is the universe different from what we see? Other recent questions include How does science fiction inform scientific progress? What is the physical and chemical nature of olive oil? What forces shape Earth’s surface?

Students work many more hours total on each class when they take sequential blocks than when they take several classes concurrently, says David Helfand, the Columbia University astronomer who served as Quest president for most of the university’s first eight years. “And you have no time constraints,” so if an instructor wants to take students on a field trip, they can. Classes at Quest have flown to Belize to look at economic development, spent days outside studying the local geology, and traveled to study a language or attend a conference.

“I was a typical academic and said the block system won’t work in physics,” says Helfand. “My English colleagues say it won’t work in their field.” It requires throwing out most of what you have done in your teaching career, he warns, but “when you see the depth the students can get to, it’s incomparable.”

He cites exoplanets as an example. “At Columbia, I go to the board and write down equations and diagrams. Everyone copies it down in their notes. At Quest, I gave them a computer simulation with some variables— telescope size, inclination of orbit, masses, distances. Then I let them go.” After a few hours, someone got up and wrote Kepler’s three laws on the board. “That’s what I call constructing knowledge instead of transferring knowledge.”

Hybrid programs

Some campuses have introduced project-based learning on a smaller scale. The engineering school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, started with a single course that met twice a week within the established educational environment. “It was a pea shooter relative to Olin’s full curriculum,” says David Goldberg, an emeritus professor of engineering from Illinois. “We’ve had a paradigm of obedience-based education. We wanted to balance that with an unleashing of possibilities. I never imagined that with the variables we could adjust we would get the ‘Olin effect’ at Illinois. But we did. It’s about culture and emotions.”

More recently, the engineering schools at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and York University in Toronto have injected elements of learning-by-doing in the context of a traditional university environment. In May UTEP’s Engineering Leadership program graduated its first class. Olin was a model for the program on a pedagogical level, “but we are as different from them as you can imagine,” says founding chair Roger Gonzalez. “They get the crème de la crème and have a small student–teacher ratio,” says Gonzalez. “UTEP is about access. The students self- select. We are showing that you can effect change in the culture without having to change every course in the curriculum.” (See the Q&A with Gonzalez on Physics Today’s website.)

At UTEP, students in the engineering leadership program take one project-based class each semester and are otherwise integrated in the broader campus. The new program has attracted a higher proportion of women—some 40–45%, compared with 15–20% in UTEP engineering overall. “We are getting people who are not geeks,” says Gonzalez. “They may want to do music or political science or business along with engineering.”

Janusz Kozinski and colleagues reinvented engineering at York University a few years ago. “We wanted to change the curriculum so people would learn in a horizontal way rather than in silos,” he says. “And we wanted to attract more women to engineering.” Engineering, business, and law were linked to form the Lassonde School of Engineering. In just three years, enrollment increased nearly 10-fold, says Kozinski. Still, the program is limited by having inherited the departmental structure and the people in it. “We advanced it, it is progressive,” he says, “but what we are doing in the UK is the ultimate frontier.”

A UK startup

Kozinski is referring to the New Model in Technology & Engineering (NMiTE), a university that this spring got government funding to get started on an industrial estate outside Hereford, near the Welsh border. “Unlike with Lassonde,” says Kozinski, NMiTE’s founding president, “here we are creating the university from the outset, so we have carte blanche and are not constrained by preexisting mechanisms.”

Like Olin, NMiTE will be a “liberal engineering” school, and like Quest it will use the block system. As at both of those schools, faculty will work on renewable contracts without tenure, and their responsibilities will include teaching, service, and intellectual activity that does not have to be original research. Courses will be in session 46 weeks out of the year, so students experience a workplace schedule and will be able to complete their degrees faster. A partner, Warwick University, will monitor academic performance and collaborate with NMiTE to develop new teaching approaches that could be difficult to introduce into more traditional environments.

Students entering NMiTE will start with a “passion project,” whose goal is to get them to see that they need to learn more about materials science, math, physics, and chemistry. Once they do, “they will realize these subjects are not abstract,” says Kozinski. “Young people want to study engineering because they want to change the world. They see engineering through successful companies—Apple and so on—and they want to do something extraordinary.”

The university will have four focus areas within engineering: manufacturing, green renewables and smart cities, agricultural engineering, and big data and resource security. Instruction in other skills—leadership, communications, conflict resolution, political context, finance, marketing, and so on—will be peppered throughout the engineering courses.

NMiTE will start up in fall 2018 with a pilot group of tuition-free students to test the courses and methods. The first official class will enter in fall 2019.

Is physics a good fit?

Carl Wieman, physics Nobel laureate and education researcher at Stanford University, says that “most instructional labs courses would be much improved” in a project-based format. But he worries that it is impractical to apply the approach across the full physics curriculum. Besides, he says, as of now there are glowing, anecdotal testimonies but not much hard data about project-based learning in physics.

Rutgers University’s Eugenia Etkina specializes in physics and astronomy education. “In complex subjects such as physics and math,” she says, “the fact that ideas build on each other prevents the real project-based approach from being implemented.” But her research on curriculum reform, like the limited versions of project-based learning at Illinois, UTEP, and York, suggests benefits for physics students even when the approach is a small part of the overall curriculum. Etkina has developed labs intended to give students more independence and more opportunity to learn from failure than is the case in traditional undergraduate laboratory exercises. Ideally, she says, the need to solve a problem or complete a project motivates students.

For his part, Helfand is sold on the learning-by-doing approach for engineering and for nonscience majors, for whom, he says, it’s “revolutionary.” For physics majors, though, he’s on the fence. “There is value, because it’s about asking questions and solving problems.” But the time-intensive project-based approach could be unwieldy for covering the large base of material that physicists need to command. “I have seen it work in engineering, geology, medicine, and business. I haven’t decided if it’s a good approach on its own for physics.”

Eric Mazur, a Harvard University physicist who has pioneered education reform in physics for nonmajors, is a proponent of using real-life problems in physics teaching. “For 27 years all I had done was to take something that was broken and try to patch it by making the class experience more interactive so students are not just dozing off. I hadn’t tackled the intrinsic lack of motivation.”

Inspired by Olin to switch to a project-based approach, he followed three principles from Harvard Business School: test relevant skills, make projects relevant to the real world, and incorporate a component of empathy or social good. “Initially I was limited in my imagination,” he says, “but it’s not that hard to come up with social good motivators.” And, he adds, “the students are interested because they realize that in learning physics they can do something meaningful.”

“Whatever works for nonmajors will work for majors—nonmajors are significantly harder to motivate,” says Mazur. “We need to rethink not individual courses, but the entire curriculum; then it shouldn’t be hard to restructure to yield graduates that are motivated to learn and keep learning.”

The project-based philosophies at NMiTE, Olin, and Quest aim to prepare students for the modern workplace. The depth sometimes comes at a cost of breadth of coverage found in more traditional curricula. Not surprisingly, graduates who have opted to continue their education report needing to fill gaps, but they also say they are more adept than others in their cohort at tackling open-ended problems.

Hancock, for example, admits that her nontraditional education made it harder to find a good match when she took physics courses at other institutions. Still, she believes that project-based learning “creates a student better- equipped to take on the new and ever-changing problems in the field.” After graduation, she landed a job as lab manager for a biotech startup.

1. © 2017 American Institute of Physics.


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