Center for Pedagogical Innovation Creates Academy for Project-Based Teaching and Learning

Chris Othon, assistant professor of physics, is teaching a project-based teaching and learning course. (Photo by Rebecca Goldfarb Terry '19)

Chris Othon, assistant professor of physics, is teaching a project-based teaching and learning course. (Photo by Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19)

A new Academy for Project-Based Teaching and Learning will encourage students and faculty to build knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to complex questions, problems and challenges within and across disciplines.

Hosted by Wesleyan’s Center for Pedagogical Innovation, the Academy’s project-based approach includes teaching significant content at the heart of each academic discipline, and cutting edge competencies in problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation.

“The Academy will help us build capacity to increase the number of courses in the undergraduate curriculum that incorporate project-based teaching and learning methods,” said Lisa Dierker, professor of psychology and director of pilot programs at the Center for Pedagogical Innovation. “We hope that this initiative will further our efforts to provide students with a pragmatic liberal education that will serve them well beyond their four years at Wesleyan.”

Long Thanh Bui, visiting assistant professor of American studies, is teaching Asian American History, one of five project-based teaching and learning courses at Wesleyan this fall. 

Long Thanh Bui, visiting assistant professor of American studies, is teaching Asian American History, one of five project-based teaching and learning courses offered at Wesleyan this fall. (Photo by Will Barr ’18)

As part of the Academy, six Wesleyan faculty are teaching introductory project-based courses this fall, including Bill Johnston (HIST 381, Japan and the Atomic Bomb); Chris Othon (Physics 113, General Physics); Brian Stewart (Physics 115, Newtonian Mechanics); Kim Diver (E&ES 332, Introduction to GIS); Roger Grant (MUSC103, Materials and Design) and Long Bui (AMST 231, Asian American History).

Wesleyan’s commitment to project-based learning stems from its demonstrated effectiveness and opportunities for transformative education, Dierker said.

“Project-based learning prepares individuals to be better able to apply what they know to new situations, to take responsibility for solving problems, to work collaboratively, and to communicate ideas,” she explained.

According to recent studies, students who engage in project-based learning have been shown to demonstrate a greater depth of understanding of concepts, a broader knowledge base, improved communication and interpersonal/social skills, enhanced leadership skills, increased creativity, and improved writing skills (Thomas, 2000; Greeno, 2006; Strobel and van Barneveld, 2009). Project-based learning also allows teachers to work more closely with active, engaged students doing high-quality, meaningful work.

Students interact during their Physics 113, General Physics class.

Students interact during their Physics 113, General Physics class.

Wesleyan has already had success with active learning sessions in several of its science courses. Also, in 2009 and again in 2012, Dierker received a National Science Foundation grant to establish a project-based introductory statistics curriculum, which has been successful in increasing opportunities in quantitative literacy for women and underrepresented students by enrolling these students at higher rates than their campus representation.

The new Academy for Project-Based Teaching and Learning will allow Wesleyan to expand use of project-based teaching and learning across the disciplines and create opportunities for collaboration with faculty at other colleges and universities interested in this educational approach.

The new academy is supported by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation. The grant was received from the Davis Educational Foundation established by Stanton and Elisabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’ retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarket.