Monday, April 6, 2009

Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning - a relatively new idea in high school education, but something I was exposed to many years ago (21) as a freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). I received my Bachelor's Degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1992 and my education at WPI has served me well in a variety of capacities. WPI is mainly a science, technology, engineering, and math school, with some other majors mixed in. 

WPI has a unique learning system, called the WPI Plan. This plan stresses project based learning. Why? Because back when they developed the Plan (over 30 years ago) they knew that the only way to truly master subject area content is to apply it. They also knew that students needed to develop teamwork, communication skills, problem solving skills, creativity, critical thinking, and research skills (sounds like "21st Century skills" doesn't it?). 

The projects are an integral part of the Plan. All classes are expected to use projects in their curriculum and the school has three projects that all students must complete. The Humanities Sufficiency is a set of 5 themed humanities courses followed by a 1 course long independent study. This project is meant to make the student more well rounded. The IQP (Interactive Qualifying Project) is a team project studying the effects of technology on society or using technology to benefit society that is equivalent to 9 credits. The MQP (Major Qualifying Project) is also equivalent to 9 credits and is a major project in your subject area, similar to a senior thesis.

I think that WPI was ahead of the game with their plan, considering this is the route that high schools and even middle schools are going. K-12 education is starting to realize how important these skills are and that project based learning is a great way to engage students while teaching them content and other needed skills.

I try to use projects when ever possible in my classes. I found that my WPI education has taught me more than the STEM subjects, it has taught me valuable skills that have allowed me to be successful as a teacher, paramedic, engineer, manager, consultant, and husband. I would love to see high schools implement a more structured project based curriculum and provide more support for teachers. I think many teachers are afraid of projects because they fear that the students will not get all of the content that they need. However, if the project is structured properly, the students will get the content in order to complete the project. They will get the content, develop teamwork, communication skills, problem solving skills, and learn organization. They will also get to be social with other students which is very important to them.

Technology can help with project based learning. I always wonder what we could have achieved back then if we had the World Wide Web as it is now. All we had was email and some ftp sites. Students can use technology to do research, organize their projects, and then present their projects as presentations, web sites, blogs, or videos. 

For more information on project based learning, see WPI, Edutopia, PBL, or Google it.


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