Toward Project-Based Learning

The value of student-centered instruction over an extended period of time.


Project-based learning is one of the most frequently referenced learning models in engineering education. Since the 1990s, it has been an important movement in ensuring that students are building the correct expertise throughout the engineering curriculum by applying theory through hands-on activities.

Engineering education has transitioned from a focus on the practice of engineering (designing to code and with well-defined procedures) to the engineering sciences (fundamental understanding of phenomena). There’s been a growing need to build an active, experiential-based exposure to engineering concepts.

The key to effective project-based learning is translating concepts to practice while simultaneously promoting technical skill development alongside soft skills like teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving that are becoming more critical in modern engineering positions. It inherently ties to relevance and helps students understand the impact of their work.

Student-Centered and Student-Driven Instruction
Project-based learning is student-centered instruction that occurs over an extended time, during which students select, plan, investigate, and produce a product presentation or performance that answers a real-world question or responds to an authentic challenge. Effective project-based learning engages students in an open-ended and ongoing journey of learning how multiple topics and subjects interact toward an end goal. The artifacts of learning are displayed throughout the process, not just in a culminating project review.

Many universities have pushed for courses with more project-based curricula; however, simply adding in a few projects does not achieve the goal of deeper understanding. “More projects” often ends in students only gaining a surface-level understanding of concepts, without reaping the potential benefits of a true project-based course.

An example of this has been seen by Dr. Krishna Vedula, professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and executive director of the Indo-Universal Collaboration for Engineering Education. He has been striving toward engaging with institutes globally to integrate more project-based learning into the curriculum.

What he’s found is that the “terminology” of project-based learning is heard, but the systematic integration of “real projects” that truly engage students is missing. Projects lack the structure or rigor to deliver a truly involved experience. In addition, educators are not effectively trained to build programs and curriculum that maintain the key properties of project-based learning.

Investing in the Integration of Project-Based Learning
In tackling such problems, there is a greater investment of programs to support the integration of project-based learning into curriculum.

In the United States, the PURDUE EPICS program in Indiana has built a service-learning design program in which teams of students partner with local and global community organizations to address human, community, and environmental needs. This has driven engagement in students as well as fostered teamwork, collaboration, and the application of engineering theory to contextual and authentic programs.

The EPICS program has also scaled itself outside the United States to India through the IUCEE-EPICS Partnership that has been driven by Vedula and Purdue faculty like Dr. Bill Oakes. It’s now providing ongoing, weekly workshops with professors in India to build institutional acumen in delivering on the vision of project-based learning. Making these concepts more tangible for the educators themselves, programs like these are taking significant steps forward in building faculty-level preparation for this needed approach to engineering education.


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