MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 4
February 2007
Experiential Learning and the
Freshman Experience
Stakeholder Expectations of Learning in First-year Project-based Subjects
The Importance of Freshman-Year Projects
One Perspective on Project-Based Learning
Printable Version

Project-Based Learning

One Perspective on Project-Based Learning

Les Norford

I have just finished teaching a pilot version of a project-based-learning class with colleagues Jim Kirtley and Steve Leeb. It’s a work in progress, but enough has been learned to merit offering a perspective as part of the faculty’s collective consideration of possible changes in the undergraduate curriculum.

Our course, “Physics of Energy,” is intended to be a hands-on exploration of issues related to energy conversion and use. We started it as a freshman seminar two years ago, combining three instructors and three groups of students. With support from the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education, we significantly expanded the content last fall, still offering it as a freshman seminar. Short experiments, typically lasting 1-2 weeks, were combined with a semester-long project to construct, test, and make creative use of a small, wheeled autonomous vehicle, which we called a robot. The short experiments included measuring the performance of electric go-carts, making DC motors and induction flashlights from scratch, and constructing and testing a desk-top power plant consisting of an alcohol-fuel energy source that powered a Stirling engine. The engine was connected to a DC generator, which provided power to an LED or a resistive load. Students compared measured end-to-end efficiencies with those of real-world power plants. The robots were a lot of work and required mechanical assembly, breadboarding and testing of analog circuits, soldering of components for digital circuits, and a moderate amount of programming. Throughout the course, we related bench-top findings to global issues of energy supply and demand, including environmental impacts. Our vision for the future includes expanding the course from six to nine or 12 units, with more time to explore the analytic methods that support the design work.

All three of us are personally convinced that courses such as ours and project-based courses that others will offer for the first time this spring have substantial value and should be supported by the Institute and home departments to the extent that they are available to all MIT freshmen. Marilee Jones, MIT’s Dean of Admissions, was quoted in the January 10, 2007 MIT Tech Talk as looking for “the kind of student who builds a telescope because they want to learn.” As faculty, we get these students and have the opportunity to encourage them to keep building and learning. Jim, Steve, and I saw that last fall. After at last getting their induction flashlights to work and leaving the lab, students congregated in the hall, shining their lights at a wall and comparing notes about how to adjust the distance from the LED bulb to the Fresnel lens. Another time, two students who had successfully tuned their robots to follow a charged wire on the lab floor exchanged joyful high-fives. Many times, students learned to deal with and overcome difficulties – their mistakes, uncertainties about the best approach to a design problem, poor results that demanded inspired diagnoses and debugging – good life experience that is important to get sooner rather than later.

There are tremendous challenges in offering such courses on a large scale. What does it take to go from 26 students to 100 or more?

Faculty availability and commitment are often identified as issues, but I think there are enough among our ranks who enjoy this form of teaching and will make time for it. More of a barrier is the need for flexible, well-equipped and attractive teaching space that will provide the tools, lab equipment, and work space needed for relatively large groups of students to work. Faculty should not have to squeeze into already crowded rooms or be forced to raise their own funds for equipment and supplies.

There have been discussions about incentives for freshmen to take project-based classes. On their merits, these courses could successfully compete with whatever else freshmen consider taking as electives. However, freshmen are eager to fulfill Institute requirements. Further, the commitment at the personal and Institute level required to make project-based courses widely available is, realistically, not appropriate for electives. We think the courses can thrive and serve their intended purpose under many possible scenarios regarding the undergraduate commons. For example, they could replace the Institute lab requirement, be paired to courses in the science core, or team with an STS-style humanities class with integral freshman advising. Our strong preference is for project-based classes that supplement rather than replace a core body of knowledge.

Many of our competitors now offer freshman seminars to complement core classes, something we have done for at least 40 years. Other schools advertise these seminars as offering first-year students access to the wisdom and experience of learned faculty. Nothing wrong with that; we do it here as well! But that is not the same as hands-on grappling with design problems, in different fields and at different scales. We offer our undergraduates a unique education; our motto stipulates that they use their hands and their minds. We hope the current efforts sponsored by the d’Arbeloff Fund are just the beginning of an Institute-wide engagement of freshmen in the kind of active learning that many have done before they come here and that we look for in their applications.

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