WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning has created a year-long, virtual offering to help colleges and universities around the country incorporate more project-based learning (PBL) opportunities for their students. In May 2022, the Center kicked off its inaugural cohort of this series, called the Collaborative for Project-Based Learning.
“For years, the Center has been offering different types of PBL professional development opportunities for faculty and staff,” says Kristin Wobbe, the Center’s director. “We often travel to their campuses to work in their context, and we also offer a multi-day Institute where teams come to WPI’s campus for an intensive workshop with their peers. This new Collaborative offers the same level of in-depth training, but in a more accessible way.”
This year’s Collaborative for PBL brings together nine institutions of all kinds, from large public universities to small private schools to regional community colleges. These institutions “send” a team leading local PBL efforts—often faculty, but also deans, department heads, instructional designers, and others. They are invited to include a student on the team to help answer questions and give feedback from their unique perspectives along the way.
Teams attend virtual workshops held in four 1- and 2-day sessions throughout the academic year, beginning and ending in May. The timing is intentionally set to help participants plan what PBL initiatives they want to implement for the upcoming year, check in midstream to ask questions along the way, and then reflect on what was successful and what they want to try in the future.
The start and finish of the Collaborative for PBL is also bookended by participation in the Center’s annual PBL Showcase, in which members of the Collaborative present learnings from their PBL journey.
“The showcase is always so energizing seeing the great work people have done,” says Kimberly LeChasseur, research and evaluation associate with the Center. “We think it is a great introduction for the people starting their Collaborative cohort to see what’s possible and to begin their program the next day with enthusiasm.”
In addition to online workshops, the Collaborative breaks participant institutions up into small clusters across teams to help share ideas, successes, and advice about what has worked for their PBL initiatives. WPI students offer additional perspectives during these sessions.
“We chose the name ‘Collaborative’ intentionally because we’re consciously framing this process around sharing what worked for each institution and giving space to see what maybe wasn’t as successful,” says Wobbe. “By working together, participants can gain an understanding of the context in which they are all operating and create support networks for the future.”
Patty Robinson, faculty director of civic and community engagement at College of the Canyons, is leading a team of her colleagues at this year’s Collaborative. This large and diverse community college in California has been a participant in the Center’s trainings for years and is a huge proponent of PBL for its students.
“In an effort to revitalize our college’s service learning program, I came across Kris Wobbe and Elisabeth Stoddard’s book [Project-Based Learning for First Year Students: Beyond All Expectations (Stylus Publishing, 2019)] and thought, ‘This is what we should be doing,’” says Robinson. “Our students didn’t want to just volunteer; they wanted to go out and create change, and PBL was the model we were looking for.”
College of the Canyons has implemented a number of PBL opportunities for its students, from housing and food insecurity through the PLACE initiative to a project related to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to discussing mental health issues among their diverse student body.
“The college is paying more attention to the idea of PBL as a high-impact practice, and we’re starting to see the outcomes and how students respond,” says Robinson. “The kind of growth, maturity, and dedication that students have displayed working on topics that empower and excite them has been extraordinary.”
Robinson and her team look forward to utilizing the Collaborative as a catalyst to advance even more PBL activities on campus. They hope to schedule a retreat over the summer to work with their assigned PBL coach to create a cohesive game plan and timeline to put initiatives in motion before the next Collaborative meeting in October.
Learn more about the Center for Project-Based Learning at WPI.