Solutions for Higher Education

Episode 14: Project-Based Learning


SUU excels at project-based learning and today's podcast we talk to a couple of guests who help us stand out in this regard. Todd Petersen and Patrick Clarke have both been instrumental in the success our EDGE program has had and they're here to tell us more about the approach.


Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined, as always in-studio, by President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: And good morning, Steve, it's always fun to be here.

Meredith: Today we're going to be joined in-studio by a couple of guests that help foster the unique environment that is SUU. And one of the things that we do that I think that we do as well or better than anyone else in the country is our focus on project based learning, and in particular, the EDGE Program, and I'll let you introduce our guests, but I'm very excited for this podcast.

Wyatt: Well thank you, Steve, and we've got two great scholars here with us today and I'm going to start out with Todd Petersen. So, Dr. Petersen, you're the Director of Project Based Learning?

Todd Petersen: That's right.

Wyatt: And also a full professor of English, author…

Petersen: Indeed, many hats.

Wyatt: [Laughter] You've been doing project based learning here for how long?

Petersen: We started the design work for the program we have in place now, the EDGE Program, in 2010 if you can believe it.

Wyatt: 2010, eight years.

Petersen: It's older than my youngest child.

Wyatt: [Laughter] And we also have Dr. Patrick Clarke, who is one of our deans on campus. Patrick?

Patrick Clarke: It's good to be here. This is a new experience for me and I'm really looking forward to talking about the EDGE Program and project based learning.

Wyatt: So, when we talk about SUU's project based learning program, we call it EDGE. So what does EDGE stand for?

Petersen: Initially, we—like all good academics—we turned it into an acronym. And we thought that it should mean Education Designed to Give Experience. There was a little bit of a backfire on that, which is, we have a lot of people with prior knowledge and learning, and they were like, "What? You're going to give me experience? I've done two tours in Afghanistan, I've raised a family, I have a business." So we backed off of that and let it start being metaphorical and started asking the students to think about it metaphorically. So now, what we hope that EDGE means is that this is the education that you get that means that you're on the edge of school and going into the world, or that you're on the edge of what you know, or that you're on the edge of your discipline and joining up with another one. And we've had a lot more value I think just thinking about EDGE meaning that. But we do like to tell the students when they're done, don't waltz into a place and interview and say, "I did an EDGE project." What we kind of counsel them on, to tell the story, is, "When I was in college, I _______." And then we want them to own that.

Wyatt: Let's talk about a couple terms. So we've got project based learning that we're discussing, and then we also have a term that's known nationally—experiential or experience based learning—and I'm sensing there's really kind of a difference here. Experience based learning is learning through doing. Project based learning is what? And how would you…can you give me an example of an experience based learning that doesn't even come close to what we're talking about in project based learning?

Clarke: One thing that's really funny about this is…so I serve on the National Board of Directors for the National Society for Experiential Education. This is an organization that's been around for nearly 50 years, and they're asking this question now, "How do we define experiential learning?" After 50 years, they're finally saying, "How do we define this?" And as they are looking around the country and looking at each other, people are having a really hard time just defining what experiential learning is because there's so much that it entails. Is it just getting experience? Are there learning processes that are expected, and are they articulated and are they assessed? And really there are few people out there who have tried to nail this thing down because it is kind of an open-ended discussion about "What constitutes experiential learning and who owns that?" Project based learning on the other hand from my perspective is, "The student owns that." And it's process and developmental in the way that it unfolds. It's not something that a student can step into and do effectively in a relatively short period of time. It takes maturity, it takes building on principles of self-evaluation and reflection and re-tooling as you go, and that the end product is the result of something that took a while to get there.

Wyatt: Yeah, so I'm thinking of a possible good example, and that is, let's say that I'm a biology student and I'm given lab assignments. And so I go into the lab and I do assignment one and two and three and four, and I have a great experience and I'm learning from my hands-on experience. But that's not at all what we're talking about when we say project based learning.

Clarke: No.

Wyatt: We're talking about, "You write up your own experiment."

Petersen: Well and then step one is you have a good lab. And there's every reason to do that. The next step towards a more experiential model that we've learned from, again, working with this organization Patrick has been talking about and S.C.E. is the reflection. So when we're talking about experiential learning in the way that the practitioners mean it, they mean reflection on an experience. And so that's the first step. But when you jump over to project based learning, that's when you use a model a lot like the formula we suggest to students just for making the declaration of their project. So we ask them to say, "I want to do X in order to learn Y, which will help me to accomplish Z."

Wyatt: So this is the student?

Petersen: Yeah.

Wyatt: This is my learning objective? My goal? Not somebody else's?

Petersen: Right. I am trying to accomplish something…

Wyatt:…I want to learn this.

Petersen: Yeah.

Wyatt: Therefore, I'm going to do this to accomplish that—they put together a proposal. And you're not going to tell them what they're going to learn. You're not going to tell them what they should care about. You're just going to tell them, "What is it that you want to learn?" And then, "How are you going to learn it?" And "We'll help you. We'll help react to what you're doing, but we're not going to lead you."

Petersen: Exactly. Or we may say, "I see what you're saying, but I raise you a ______ (this aspect of the project.)" Or, "I see that you want to work on a children's book. What if you tried to at least publish a proof of it?" So we…we're not passive when we work on this, but we say, "There's not as much clarity as we'd like in your objectives." And we use some language that we use in the institution. We ask them to state outcomes. And we have them formulate it this way, in an if-then statement. "If I accomplish ______, then something will happen." And then we ask them to come back and report on having moved that needle. What we don't tell them is [those are] key performance indicators and language that they'd experience in the professional world. [All laugh] But they get to identify what those KPIs are for themselves, and then we ask them to come back and document that. So their proposal functions as a contract. "This is what I said I was going to do." And then when they're finished with the project, we look at it and go, "OK, did you do what you said you were going to do?"

Wyatt: This comes in three parts.

Petersen: Yeah.

Wyatt: Part one is the planning/proposal stage, part two is the actual carrying out of the project stage, and then part three is this reflection.

Petersen: Correct.

Wyatt: We don't learn from experiences, we learn from reflecting on experiences.

Petersen: That's it.

Clarke: Yes. That's where the learning occurs. And it's really a professional skill set. So I was in a meeting with Spencer Cox—our lieutenant governor—last summer, and he was talking about the current state of the workforce in our nation. And it used to be that you went to college and got a degree and then you plugged into a career field and that's where you stayed for 30-35 years until you retired. In today's world, our new professionals need to understand that it's likely that not only may they change jobs, but they may do things that are completely different in 10 years after graduation from where they start after graduation. And they need to learn to re-tool, retrain, and learn over the course of their professional life. And really, the EDGE Program teaches some professional skill sets that aid that process. It's not uncommon for individuals in their 30s and 40s and maybe even in their 50s to have to learn new skills, retrain, re-tool, and do something that they never intended to do. And this process of reflection and thinking about how they've accomplished things, how they've improved things, how they learn, is I think vital to that process. It helps with this equilibrium of doing something different and new.

Wyatt: Let's talk about some of these projects. The most incredible one, in the sense of overwhelming, that I know of was somebody that built a house for her project. It was a tiny house built on the back of a flatbed trailer, but I suppose that most students aren't quite that ambitious with their projects. But give us kind of a flavor of the range of projects that students undertake?

Petersen: This is the best part of my job. Because once we get out of the way, students constantly blow our minds and amaze us. This is the one that's on my mind the most. We have a student here at SUU who, prior to coming here to start down the pathway towards being a physician—she's coming here to do pre-med—she was a cello performance student at a conservatory. And she had a change of heart and so she got here and got started going in the direction that she needed to become a physician and said, "You know what? I do not accept that I will not get to do a senior recital anymore. So I'm going to do one anyway." So she's planning and arranging and practicing and rehearsing for a senior recital that she would have had if she'd finished the conservatory, but that she wants to still have as a completed experience for herself as she launches in to become a doctor. Well, in talking to her about this project, I said, "Not only are you satisfying a personal passion, you're being really wise because medical schools are changing fundamentally what they want to see, and the breadth of the kinds of people that they bring in." So when we go talk to the folks at the Rural Health Scholars, they keep saying that medical schools are really interested in seeing people who have a human side to themselves. They've done some work in the arts or in the humanities, that they can read deeply and that they're empathetic. And so this project is deeply personal for the student, but it's going to be wildly successful for her. And it just shows something about who she is as a person and what her moxie is. That can be one kind of a project.

On the other side, we have, again, people who build a tiny home. We had a student—a number of students—who used their EDGE project to start working on the development of a childcare facility on campus. Where they saw a need, they joined in and participated in the community and got involved in something that maybe in some ways whisked them away and became a larger project than they had thought about. Some students use it to complete a project that school has really taken their attention off. We get a lot of people that want to finish writing a book that they just have been dabbling at but they need something that focuses on them to finish that. We had one student that we did one of our awards for last year, she is a Native American woman who joined up and went through a Women in Firefighting training program to become a wild land firefighter. And has used that to attain the credentials and start doing the internship work. And now, she's kind of moving into a place where women of color aren't commonly found but she had found her way into that and, again, gained a lot of personal confidence about being able to work and function in that world and to maybe even be a little bit of a pioneer. So some of these projects are really, really quite and personal and some of these things are really out in the forefront and are really kind of showpieces.

Wyatt: And some are just fairly directed towards their career, like the student that did a windmill to charge up his cell phone.

Petersen: Right, wanted to be an engineer, just wanted to do that. And we think that the…honoring the entire spectrum of students reasons for wanting to do this is really [more] important than saying, "Nope, you need to do the reason we want you to do." And we've learned a lot—I guess that's I've learned a lot in the last seven years of doing this—about how complex and varied students reasons for being in college are.

Clarke: The thing that I really liked about the student who built the windmill, something that he said that really resonated with me, was that, "I wanted to design something that was my design, and not something that my professor wanted me to design. I had this idea and I just couldn't really find how this fit in to my program of study. But the EDGE Program opened up this opportunity for me so I was able to exercise what's been kind of cooking in my own mind and building something of my own design." And pardon me quickly, one of my favorite projects is just something that's kind of under the radar but I just love it so much, is there was a single father who really struggled with the idea of coming up with a project until he realize that it could be something that was, as Todd said, very personal to him and really served a need in his neighborhood. And so what he did is he organized a clinic to help other single fathers with daughters learn how to do their hair.

Petersen: Yes.

Clarke: Because a lot of single fathers have daughters who need their hairs done in the morning before they go to school. He struggled with that and it was hard for him to know how to braid hair and curl hair and do things like that, but he…so in doing this project, he was able to demonstrate leadership skills, organizational skills, he was able to learn a new skill set, and none of this would have happened unless there was something in place to really motivate the process. And so it's kind of one of those under the radar projects, but there's so much that you can tell about an individual or that they can tell about themselves and they share their story about why they did it, what they learned from the experience, who it helped, and those are just dimension that a lot of our students don't think about early on. But after they complete this process, they're better able to talk about these things and communicate to other people these stories. I think that make a big difference when they're trying to compete with other people in the job market.

Wyatt: So I'm an employer and I'm doing interviews and I go through everybody that's done great in college and then I come across somebody who shows some real initiative to figuring out a problem and then creating a strategy, implementing it—that really sets that person out. This is what you talked about when you referred to the hard research work.

Clarke: Mhmm.

Petersen: And there's some emergent research—Clemson has worked on this and I don't know if they've published it yet—but they took a bunch of seniors that were getting ready to graduate [and] divided them into some groups. They had them do some mock interviews on campus with faculty and staff that were professionals in those areas, and they did the standard way. They took one group and didn't prep them at all, they took one group and ran them through career services and had them get kind of ready for mock interviews, and then they took one group and got them ready through career services and then had them make a portfolio, just assemble the stuff. They never showed the portfolio to anyone, they never showed the portfolio in the interview, but the act of synthesizing material to create a portfolio made them head and shoulders better interviewers. And so that's another aspect of this: the ability to do something and then reflect, or organize it, synthesize it, put together the information that just might for all intents and purposes be useful in a portfolio. The higher utility may not even be in the artifact created, but just in the process of creating materials. To talk about what you did, and then maybe have a run-through and a practice to talk about what you did to achieve those results so that when you sit down to be interviewed, you're coherent, you've thought about this kind of stuff, and you're not really kind of talking on the fly. So a lot of this is just about having practice at a thing the professionals know that they have to do over, and over, and over, and over again in their lives in order to advance and to get where they are; to move from one job to another, one career to another. And this seems to be the starting point. So if they can repeat this process, what we hope is that they can do this with any project, whether it's professional or personal, whether it's something they're using to serve in the community, this can be repeated.

Wyatt: This has a real occupational feel to it, but it's way beyond occupational feel. This is the kind of character, discipline, personal reflection that we want students to gain.

Petersen: Yeah.

Wyatt: The intrinsic value of education, not just the utility. And it serves both purposes, doesn't it?

Petersen: It does.

Wyatt: Well, so the tradition of higher education in America has been to lecture, to read, to respond. And then it evolved into labs and work projects, and this seems like the next iteration which builds on the former two, which is just kind of the passive learning and then converting it into active learning or experiential learning, and then going well beyond that into guided learning, where the student is learning on her own—with a lot of support—but as you said, what does she want to learn, and how is she going to learn it, and how is she going to measure that she learned it? What a phenomenal preparation for life. This is an exciting frontier. Thank you very much.

Petersen: Thanks for having us.