by Timothy Williams
Hands on work:
In school, I have had several projects where I was to do independent work to accomplish a goal. Perhaps that goal was to write a program that modeled the motion and forces acting on the Jansen mechanism. Maybe it was to write a program that modeled the active suspension system in a car. Those were fun activities, rich with opportunities to go beyond the class and learn for oneself why those things work the way they do. I would that all of my education consisted of projects like that, and I think that I will get what I wish for when I go into the workforce. Why? - because this internship has taught me exactly that. Whether you are working in a team or alone, every time you start working on a project you learn something new. And then there is troubleshooting. In a classroom you are given data, and that is about the end of it. You expect the data to be usable, but the same cannot be said in the real world. While creating the unorthodox weight sensor, I have had to run several tests in order to determine what I can and cannot do with the data.
I am sure most of us have encountered a subject that we were not interested in. Of course, that can affect our performance if we do not put in enough effort. Grades are kind of a measure of the effort one puts into a course. That is not always true. I did not study for a single test for the Physics 40 series, and I aced all three classes. Why? - because the subject was interesting. It stuck in my head, and I could not stop thinking about it. Now zoom forward in my academic career. I have to study material I have already been taught once or twice in order to remember it. This is due to a lack of interest (and a mixture of personal problems). Again, projects come to save the day, rekindling my interest in a subject. In fact, I would argue that you do not even need to be interested in a project to be driven to learn more than you would with a normal homework assignment. Compare the goals associated with completing a project and completing an analogous amount of “busy work.” There are steps within a project that one must take to reach the goal, and these steps often include several aspects of your education. Instead of working on those aspects individually with “busy work,” you tie them together and gain a better understanding of how they relate to each other and how they can be used in real world situations. In order to reach your goal in a project, you need to climb through that intricately woven net of ideas, whereas with busy work you simply cross one or two strings at a time. In a project, when you pull on one string as you are climbing, you can see it hit other strings, and how! But I digress. I was talking about goals. What is the motivation for completing busy work or projects? It varies from person to person, but I believe there to be a fundamental difference. You could say they are both driven by a desire to achieve the desired GPA, but set that aside for a moment. Learning is what is important. Imagine that a person wanted to learn outside of school. What do you think his/her preferred method would be? Would he hit the textbook problems and keep working on them until his eyes bleed? Probably. Not a bad idea if you ask me. However, there are things you learn in projects that you can not learn from those contrived problems. The reverse cannot be said. Sure you can make those problems as similar to the project as you can, but you can never give the student the full brunt of the learning without in fact causing him to do the entire project. Busy work is a subset of projects. Back to the question at hand - given the choice, would an independent student choose to work on an entire project, or work on subsets of that project and often switch between subsets of varying projects (as it is with school)? Personally, I would rather tackle entire projects. I lack the data to claim that others would likely choose one or the other.
Conclusion: project based learning provides a much richer learning experience than contrived problems.