Looking Back at the Institute on Project-Based Learning 2018

July 11, 2018
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This year’s Institute on Project-Based Learning, the flagship offering of the Center for Project-Based Learning, welcomed 144 attendees from 26 colleges and universities around the world. While the majority were attending the Institute for the first time, a handful of returning institutions sent new teams—here’s a glimpse at how they’re planning on bringing project-based learning back to their own campuses.

Bellevue College (Bellevue, Wash.)

Last year, Bellevue College, one of two community colleges at this year’s Institute, sent two teams to the Institute—for 2018, they decided to cut to the chase and sent a team of 10, with team leader Sapan Parekh, associate director of Service Learning and Community Engagement at the RISE Learning Institute within Bellevue that supports faculty with high-impact practices.

After determining what to do with the action plan devised by last year’s teams that detailed what needed to be done on Bellevue’s campus—going up to 20 years in the future—Parekh and his team worked together to relate to what the teams had created last year while building upon it and making it better.

Bellevue’s team included instructors from departments including biology, chemistry, computer science, English, healthcare management, psychology, and the Autism Spectrum Navigators Program because, Parekh explained, “While people are going to work on their own things in their own classes, it’s always about coming up with something that represents the college as a whole that we could then take forward. If we want to implement something larger, we need to have as many different voices as possible.”

The Institute was a new experience for Parekh, who facilitates service learning for the college but hasn’t experienced many conferences devoted solely to project-based learning. “Team dynamics, creation, and project assessment are all things this conference does well, and it was really important … to come to it.”


Miami Dade College (Miami, Fla.)

After initially learning of the Institute on Project-Based Learning from its provost and president, Miami Dade College sent their first team to the Institute last year. With that past team’s blessing, first-time attendees Margaret Shippey (director of faculty development, Academic Affairs), Sandra LaFleur (director of social change initiatives, Office of Innovation), and their team returned to continue Miami Dade’s mission of further implementing project-based learning across the College.

LaFleur explained that project-based learning fits beautifully with the College’s changemaking initiative, which focuses on educating every student to be a changemaker. Miami Dade College was recognized as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus two years ago. “We want to activate every student’s ability to make change and have the will and desire to understand where they want to make that change by finding their purpose and their passion.”

The team’s engagement after returning to Miami Dade will focus on discussing the best ways to implement what they’ve learned on their own campuses and the most effective ways to share their ideas with faculty, something Shippey was optimistic about after training programs held following last year’s Institute.

“[Faculty] know this puts the student at the center of the learning process, and we’ve talked about student-centered learning for decades, so they can begin to take ownership,” she said. She and LaFleur are well aware that the paradigm shift is a process, but they’re looking forward to seeing where the outcomes of transformative education will take their students next.


Southern New Hampshire University (Manchester, N.H.)

Although students in SNHU’s College of Online and Continuing Education (COCE) are primarily “new traditional” college-age adult students who complete their coursework online through competency and project-based programs, Dan Blickensderfer (director of learning and assessment) still saw the benefits they’d receive through his and his team's attending the Institute on Project-Based Learning.

“There were a lot of things that were really useful to us related to group work,” Blickensderfer said, citing a particular presentation by Charlie Morse (director of WPI's Student Development & Counseling Center) on helping introverted and extroverted students succeed and collaborate together as an invaluable lesson they’ll be using in facilitating student groups.

Blickensderfer and his team weren’t the first representatives from SNHU to attend the Institute, and, though the work they’re engaged in is different from that of the previous SNHU team, they were looking forward to sharing their experiences and continuing their work with the Center in the form of tailored workshops.

“I’m impressed with how much support there is for project-based learning here at WPI,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s fantastic, and I’m looking forward to using some of the lessons from the Institute to continue building that same kind of support system at SNHU.”


Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, N.C.)

Last year’s Wake Forest team attended the Institute in hopes of revitalizing its curriculum across campus. This year Rebecca Gill (Larry J. and LeAnn Merlo Presidential Chair for Communication and Entrepreneurship) and her interdisciplinary team (three individuals from the Center for Entrepreneurship, the university’s chief sustainability officer, and the chair of the Department of Communication) arrived with a focus on the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

“We’ve recently undergone a refreshing of our curricular and cocurricular offerings," Gill explained, "and thought that attending the Institute on Project-Based Learning would be an excellent opportunity and way to solidify the changes we’ve made so far—and also inspire us in terms of what tweaks we want to make in the upcoming year and how to grow our program even more.”

Upon returning to their campus, Gill and her teammates planned to create a network of faculty who are already implementing project-based learning in their classrooms, find others who are interested in implementing that methodology, and design a first-year course of their own, modeled after WPI’s Great Problems Seminar.

“We’ve seen many examples over the past two days of how varied [project-based learning] can be," she said. "It’s about developing skills to work in teams and think creatively. That’s so crucial today because even if a student isn’t interested in being an entrepreneur, all students will need to be entrepreneurial in their careers. It will teach them how to grow and contribute to the world.”


- By Allison Racicot