Project-Based Learning Breaks Down Academic Silos

The students of today need a different learning approach to prepare them for the complex problems of tomorrow, educators say.

by / November 18, 2015 0
Students who do meaningful work often tackle interdisciplinary problems. Flickr/marco antonio torres

The complex problems that the world faces today can't be solved by just one person with a specific set of skills.

Problems such as clean water, global health and energy independence require a team of people who each have a diverse set of skills and can collaborate across traditional academic disciplines. And that's why forward-thinking education leaders are changing up the way their institutions prepare students to face these types of challenges.

Work that's worth doing often looks like a project and doesn't fit neatly into artificial academic disciplines. "If you're doing meaningful work, it's going to be interdisciplinary almost by definition," said Ben Daley, chief academic officer at High Tech High in San Diego. 

In undergraduate engineering education, students are wired to build things that haven't been built before to solve problems they haven't seen before. An integrated, active learning framework gives them an opportunity to collaborate on projects that make a difference.

"You want to feed that passion, direct that passion and certainly not do anything to breed out that passion," said Vincent P. Manno, provost, dean of faculty and professor of engineering at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.

A project-based learning environment includes at least four key ingredients: a shared vision, restructured priorities, motivation to educate students and public presentations.

The shared vision that education leaders need is that learning outcomes are important. Educators who care about student learning outcomes are motivated to adopt project-based learning principles.

When it comes to priorities, it's less expensive in time, money and people to keep running education in lecture-style blocks. It will take either more human and financial resources or a restructuring of priorities to shift to project-based learning.

Faculty motivation is another important ingredient. While many big research universities say that research is king, they also say they will provide good education to students. That means that any university in the business of education should have professors who are at least partly motivated to educate students.

Finally, public presentations play a critical role in project-based learning environments. Because this type of learning is all about real-world application of knowledge in important projects, students need to feel like their work matters and that people outside of their teachers will see it. By presenting and defending their project at a community exhibition, students can show off what they created with confidence.

In these project-based environments, students can use technology to help them research, produce and present their projects. They can also gain virtual access to operating rooms and other places where traditionally only a few students have been able to visit at a time. But schools and universities should not ask students to sit at a computer and be fed information, Daley said.

While both High Tech High and Olin College are smaller institutions with deep roots in project-based learning, larger public institutions can make small changes within their existing education structures. The challenge is how to get both K-12 and higher education on the same page.

K-12 education would feel more pressure to change if more colleges were like Olin College and asked students to work in interdisciplinary teams to solve real problems and communicate. As it is, High Tech High is often teaching students these ways of thinking, but then sending them to universities with large lecture halls and big tests, though some of its students have gone on to Olin College.

"As a K-12 education leader, the path of least resistance is not in the direction of deeper learning," Daley said.

But barring major adjustments in what higher education requires, the biggest thing that K-12 schools can do to adopt more project-based learning is to make students' meaningful work public. When students know that other people will look at their work, they want to make it better. 

Testing ideas, giving students opportunities to practice and providing a support structure for student projects are also important. Education institutions typically force students to sit through dense math courses and learn everything in them in case they'll need that information letter. But by working on a real project that involves math, students will be motivated to learn specific math concepts that will help them do a better job on their project.

"If you can scaffold it in a way where at least some aspect of it is being driven by things that students are interested in," Manno said, "all of a sudden, they become hungry for that content."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.