Last week, during the worst snow fall Paris has seen in decades, I gave a 2-day workshop on project-based learning for the teachers and pedagogical engineers at Paris Est University, organised by IDEA, Initiative d’Excellence en Formations Innovantes.
Despite transport issues, a motivated team of teachers was eager to experience project-based learning first-hand and learn how they can introduce it in their courses.
Project-based learning exists for many years and many teachers have tried this active learning method to help students develop their skills and challenge their knowledge by working on a complex question. Putting this type of teaching method in place requires some knowledge and skills, and luckily many resources are available online through The Buck Institute for Education and some teachers, like me, are giving workshops to introduce the method and help other teachers design the project-based learning courses from scratch.
To allows teachers to experience first-hand what are the pros and cons of project-based learning, I chose to teach the workshop using the same method. The goal of the workshop was to propose a project-based learning module, on a subject that the teachers would deem important for their students, for the university and for the society.
An essential part of project-based learning is creating a community of learners – setting up the activities in a way that learners feel comfortable to contribute and to learn from each other, to capitalise on their different experience, knowledge, skills and interest. I like to start my workshops with a random pictures collage, which lets everyone represent themselves to others in a group in an unconventional way that sparks curiosity and creates new links between previous strangers.
Another aspect that is important in teaching is to incite student engagement, by providing them with a learning problem they can easily identify with. An easy way, yet challenging for the teacher, is to led the learners choose what they want to work on. They will typically choose a subject that is very important to them – either for their professional future, or because it’s something they are emotionally involved in in their everyday life. Working on something that has an importance to us increases our engagement in completing the project. Working with others as a team increases our accountability for the tasks we commit to do.
The final touch to setting up project-based learning is to choose a challenge suitable for the learners’ level of knowledge and skills. It is tricky to design a challenge that would be on an optimal level for everyone. One way of setting the right challenge is to have an open-ended project, where teams set their own goals and criteria for success helps everyone learn new skills and expand their disciplinary knowledge. What counts is the delta – not what the learners have learned, but how much they improved their skills and knowledge.
So, what did the teachers propose as engaging subjects for university students? Two modules addressing key issues – recognising fake news, and designing a new model of society! Topics that can spark students’ engagement, create a community of learners and set a challenging final product!
Project-based learning is a method I have been using for the past 6 years to create engaging and challenging learning-through-research modules at the Bachelor program Licence FDV. More than 150 students have experienced this type of learning through Thermal Wars week, LabSprint experience in Petnica, or various Biosensors projects. Their results are documented online, through live-tweeting and learningthruresearch blog, to increase the impact of the projects and showcase their level of research skills.
The most challenging question I received during the workshop was:
Can we teach a whole curriculum using project-based learning?
Since I strongly believe in the learning-by-doing or experiential learning, the answer to this question will come after the first Science Survival Kit Summer Semester, taking place this summer in Croatia, where we will attempt just that – teach research skills to students coming from various backgrounds using 5 modules of project-based learning!
Do you know someone who would benefit from project-based learning approach in sciences? Applications are open until March 1st 2018!