by Sylvain Kalache

Project-based learning coming to disrupt research

Jan 08, 2018
IT LeadershipIT SkillsTechnology Industry

Our centuries-old educational model is failing our students, and it’s failing us.

mentor teach learn office computer
Credit: Thinkstock

Project-based learning – learning by doing – has been a proven training method for craftsmen and artisans for centuries and more recently, K-12 students and Software Engineers. Now, a former MIT professor and dean wants to bring the learning methodology to the research world.

Introducing Station1, an alternative to regular universities, wants to reinvent the way research is done. The founder, Christine Ortiz, left her prestigious post as a professor and dean at MIT to start the project. The institution won’t offer lectures, preferring students learn by working on projects. Students will acquire knowledge via online resources, putting active-learning at the center of the education, taking an opposite approach to what most institutions practice with lecture-based education where students have to cope with rote learning. Active learning has been proven to increase students’ performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.

“The Station1 model is focused on inquiry or research-based learning, a form of project-based learning, whereby students are guided and iterate through an investigatory and/or design process that brings them to and beyond the frontiers of a field,” said Ortiz. “This approach has characteristics known to drive students to higher order learning including: timely and specific feedback, dialogic engagement, deliberate and effortful practice, solving ambiguous and complex problems, motivation through purpose and context, metacognition, and the development of interpersonal competencies such as collaboration, creativity, and communication.”

The internet has put more knowledge that we need on our desktops, in our pockets, and yet we still, for the most part, students still sit politely in classrooms being force fed crumbs of knowledge. When instead, we should be urging them to explore for themselves, only guided by instructors, learning how to learn for themselves – a life-long skill everyone will need.

The learn-by-doing methodology, a central part of the Progressive Education pedagogical movement, is gaining momentum in post-secondary education. In the US, this will probably echo back for many to apprenticeships – which for centuries has trained blue-collar type professionals (artisans and craftsmen). But the methodology could actually train the next generation of white-collar workers. School 42 and Holberton School (of which I am the co-founder) led the way for Software Engineers in the US, with their graduates now working for companies like Tesla, LinkedIn and Apple. And now it’s the research world that is about to be disrupted by the approach.

Complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity are, according to the World Economic Forum, the top 3 skills that the next generation of worker will need. That’s arguably not something you will learn by passively being fed knowledge and then answering an exam. Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, argues that “it’s important to teach problem solving, or teach to the problem and not the tools” which is a building block of his Ad Astra School.

And an increasing number of companies are hiring candidates based on their skills rather than their diploma, and the research world is no different. Ortiz told Edsurge that “If a student doesn’t have an internship or a project or research experience, they’re pretty much noncompetitive in the job market.”

Station1 is also putting an emphasis on creating a holistic framework for lifelong learning, a skill that will, for once, not get obsolete. In a world where it’s estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately hold jobs that don’t yet exist, teach students one skill and you got them a job; teach students to learn and you got them lifetime employment. For the US only, it is estimated that 83% of US low wage jobs will be automated – representing 66 million jobs and potentially affecting 62% of American workers.

The school, located in Lawrence, Massachusetts, strategically placed an hour away from Boston which has the biggest concentration of Top-Tier research universities in the US, which includes Harvard University, MIT, Boston University, and Boston College. But Station1 will be drastically different, it will have no classrooms. Say goodbye to the classic model, designed for the industrial era, with rows of desks facing the front of the room. Ortiz opted for open spaces for research and group work as well as rooms dedicated to individual study.

Ritz who has run many project-based classes at MIT is advocating for diversity. The institution wants to create a learning environment where each student can leverage their differences to reach achieve their academic, personal, and professional goals. Their first program, planned to start in the 2018 summer is encouraging African American, Hispanic, Native American, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander, first-generation students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students enrolled at minority-serving institutions, teaching institutions, and community colleges to apply. The tuition is not stated, the institution will offer stipends for living expenses, housing and transportation.

While Ritz is starting Stating1 in Boston and plans to grow the campus to 10,000 students and 1,000 faculty members, she also wants to expand the internationally.

Our centuries-old educational model is failing our students, and it’s failing us. The project-based revolution is already making a difference and it’s just getting started!