Marja Bakermans, Hermine Vedogbeton, Fiona Levey, and John-Michael Davis

The cohort of inaugural fellows (from left): Marja Bakermans, Hermine Vedogbeton, Fiona Levey, and John-Michael Davis

Center for Project-Based Learning Launches Faculty Fellowship Program

Fellows focus on developing best practices in guiding project work

For many, project-based learning is WPI’s special sauce—the ingredient that imparts the unique flavor of a WPI education. Thanks to a new summer fellowship program at the Center for Project-Based Learning, four WPI faculty members will have the opportunity to develop their own recipes using that ingredient this summer.

“Our primary role at the Center for Project-Based Learning (CPBL) is to help other colleges and universities learn from our experience so that they can advance project-based learning on their own campuses,” says Kris Wobbe, director of the CPBL. “In offering these new fellowships, we want to support projects that would be broadly useful for our clients from other schools. And by making the resources that our fellows develop available beyond WPI, we will help faculty everywhere provide impactful project-based learning experiences to their students.”

Each fellow will receive a $10,000 stipend and develop a resource that can be shared with faculty from WPI and beyond. Below are the four inaugural fellows and their projects:

Each fellow developed their proposal based on challenges they have seen their students encounter while working on team-based projects. During the fellowship they will document ways that other faculty can overcome similar challenges in their own classrooms.

None of the challenges are unique to faculty, students, or courses at WPI. For example, Bakermans will explore how to help both faculty and students intentionally weave diversity and inclusion into open educational resources that they develop, and Vedogbeton will document specific microaggressions that BIPOC and other underrepresented students experience and then work with diversity experts to explain how faculty can address each issue if and when it occurs in their classroom.

Embracing Diversity

Bakermans and Vedogbeton each hope that their work during the fellowship will play a role in diversifying and democratizing higher education.

“There’s a growing movement in academia of providing and using open educational resources, which are already free, but that doesn’t mean they’re always inclusive or that they promote equity,” Bakermans says. “When faculty put together teaching materials that they’ll share with others, it’s important to recognize contributions of folks in the field and to include diverse voices, especially those from marginalized populations.”

For the last several years, Bakermans has worked to increase the number of women-authored texts she uses in her classes. She also highlights research done by people of all races and genders.

“I include many different identities and I actually show those people during my lectures so that students can see that everybody’s involved in conservation,” she says. “During this fellowship, I plan to walk through the process that I’ve used to make my open educational resources more inclusive. I’ll describe each element and explain why I included it. I hope that by sharing my process and providing some language and examples, I’ll help other faculty—whatever discipline they’re in—to start adding diverse elements into their courses.”

Vedogbeton, for her part, hopes her work during this fellowship will, in the long run, help all students feel more comfortable and confident while working in a team setting. For that to happen, she’s creating a toolkit of sorts to help faculty understand best practices for curtailing a range of microaggressions that happen in the classroom.

In offering these new fellowships, we want to support projects that would be broadly useful for our clients from other schools. And by making the resources that our fellows develop available beyond WPI, we will help faculty everywhere provide impactful project-based learning experiences to their students.
  • Kris Wobbe
  • Director of the Center for Project-Based Learning

“If someone tells a student that they are not smart, that they are not capable of working on an important part of a project, what do you do as faculty? How should you help the whole group understand the importance of giving peers opportunities to do certain work?” she says. “I know faculty want to make things better for students, but often they are not sure how to approach sensitive topics like this in a helpful way.”

The focus of Vedogbeton’s fellowship project stems from her ongoing research into the experiences of Black students at WPI. The situations she plans to address in the toolkit, though, will be relevant for students from all walks of life, including women, LGBTQ students, BIPOC students, and even introverts who feel unable to express themselves in a team setting.

“I’m going to look at multiple populations that have issues on campus, because we know that biases affect everyone,” she says.

Addressing Team-Based Challenges

Likewise, at some point during their college years, everyone writes. And Davis has noticed that almost everyone struggles with writing—and revising—group assignments. That’s why during this fellowship he plans to create a set of sequential exercises that target common writing problems and navigate students through the process of revising their team members’ writing, starting with big-picture narrative changes and ending with detailed line editing.

“It will include a simple, but targeted, checklist of things that students can do both in their own writing and when putting things together as a team,” says Davis. “My goal is to have the group writing and revising process be more valuable so that by the time students submit the final assignment, it is one step farther along and we as faculty can elevate our own comments and give more helpful feedback.”

Davis is cautious of not reinventing the wheel, noting that many helpful writing guides already exist. Writing and revising as a team provides some unique challenges, though, and those are the details on which Davis plans to focus. “The real art is going to be balancing simplicity and complexity in a way that will actually be useful for students working as a group,” he says.

The very concept of working as a group is at the core of Levey’s fellowship project. When students returned to campus after more than a year and half of remote learning and isolation during COVID, Levey noticed that many hadn’t encountered open-ended projects requiring them to work together.

“When I asked them to do things in a team, they didn’t know how to divide and conquer and then mesh their individual interdependent parts. After COVID, some students thought ‘teamwork’ meant sitting around the table and doing all the work together. In other teams each member designed part of the system but then the team struggled to integrate these into the whole. In both scenarios students felt overwhelmed because I had given them enough work for each person to do a piece and put those pieces together,” says Levey. “I realized that I needed to teach them how to divide an assignment into distinct tasks, decide who does what, and then put it together and check each other’s work.”

During this fellowship Levey plans to document the ways she has guided students through bumps in the road while they work on open-ended team projects. “I’d like to develop a generalized toolkit for other faculty who want to design or redesign a capstone-level course. I’ll create modules that they can pick and choose from so they don’t have to do an entire course design from scratch,” she says.

And just as diversity, equity, and inclusion will be central in both Bakermans’ and Vedogbeton’s projects, so, too, will Levey spell out guidelines that are relevant to and effective for a range of students.

Inviting More People to the Table

In fact, diversity writ large is what Wobbe is most excited about as this fellowship program becomes a reality.

“We’re expanding our pool of people and resources and deepening our collective knowledge,” she says, noting that in addition to each fellow producing a resource that the CPBL can share with future clients, each will also serve over the summer as a coach during either the Institute on Project-Based Learning or the Collaborative for Project-Based Learning.

While faculty members at WPI and beyond will inevitably learn and grow as a result, Wobbe points out that students—and the global community—are the ultimate beneficiaries.

“The world of higher ed is moving toward more experiential learning for students, and project-based learning is an effective model for that. Not only can it be a real lever for equity in college learning, but it also engages students in work with communities and has evident impacts beyond the university,” says Wobbe.

As a result of this new fellowship program, then, ever more people—in academia and beyond—will be nourished by WPI’s special sauce.