What’s an Appropriate Learning Space for Project-based Learning Courses?

By Philip D. Long, Associate Director, OEIT

MIT is experimenting with extending project-based learning (PBL) courses to freshmen. While a major concern to many faculty has been the time and energy such courses demand, Professor Leslie Norford suggests the challenges for scaling up a PBL pilot course is less about faculty commitment and more about the spaces they will require for effective learning. He wrote in the February, 2007, issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter:

“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.” Les Norford (http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/194/norford.html)

OEIT operates several flexible-learning spaces including 37-312 (the 2D Visualization Lab), 26-139 (New Media Center), 4-035, an extension of the New Media Center that supports Digital Input/Output Room and 1-142.

Room 1-142 has been configured to support Athena use as a generic Athena cluster, but IS&T usage statistics as well as general observations find that while it can be busy at times, most of the time it isn’t. At the same time pilot courses using PBL approaches to teaching have struggled to find places suitable for these hands-on learning experiences. And, as Professor Norford suggests, we know little about the scaling issues associated with providing the infrastructure these kinds of hands-on learning environments require.

In the interests of trying to prototype such new learning environments and better support the PBL courses recommended by the Task Force for the Undergraduate Commons (http://web.mit.edu/committees/edcommons/index.html) the design and mission of room 1-142 is changing. We are proceeding in two phases. The first is intended to meet a proximate need for a place to teach “Projects in Microscale Engineering for the Life Sciences”, taught by Professors Dennis Freeman and Martha Gray, and Dr. Alexander Aranyosi (6.07J). Changes being implemented are geared to enable students to:

  • develop research ideas in teams and discuss them in an informal ‘living room’ like seating arrangement, equipped with projection for team presentation and mini-lecture

  • perform table-top microscopy experiments in micro-fluid flow on benches that can be rearranged as needed

  • collect and examine data with workstations at the lab bench tables

  • clean up and maintain their lab equipment at a portable sink

  • store student project artifacts and research equipment in storage cabinets in the room.

A cross-departmental team led by Josh Allen, Learning Spaces Systems Administrator, OEIT and Phil Long, Associate Director, OEIT and comprising Professor Dennis Freeman, EECS, Lou Graham, Audio Visual Services, Peter Bedrosian, Registrar’s Office, Oliver Thomas, IS&T, Brian Murphy, IS&T and Jim Cain, OEIT has been working round the clock to get 1-142 ready for the first phase, and the new prototype space was launched in time for usage by 6.07J for the Spring 2008 semester. The budget was supported by OEIT and the DUE Head Office.

A more expansive vision for this project-based learning prototyping space has been developed as part of a CRSP proposal to support Phase 2. The changes proposed here extend the learning space design making it more ergonomic and to allow us to know better how it is being used by:

  • changing the fluorescent lighting and electrical wiring to support more natural work group lighting for project activities

  • relocation of electrical and data outlets intended to support flexible room configuration options.

  • adding storage space is required in the room for project artifacts and team materials.

  • adding a counter and plumbed sink on one wall for use by those courses that require a minimal clean up capacity as well as for student hygiene after project work

  • replacing the wall surfaces with writeable surfaces, many with digital capture capability

  • installing sensing devices to collect data on room usage similar to the those installed currently in the PlaceLab1 including:

    • State sensors. Small, wired and wireless sensors located on the objects that people touch and use, including cabinet doors and drawers, controls, furniture, passage doors, windows, containers, etc. They detect on-off, open-closed, and object movement events.

    • Location beacons. Radio frequency devices permit the identity and approximate position detection of people within the PBL learning lab.

    • Audio sensing. Nearly invisible microphones are installed in each interior component to capture audio.2

    • Still image and video capture. A video capture system to process images captured by discreetly placed visible light and infrared cameras installed behind panels in interior components. 2

The Evolving Role of Project-based Learning “Lab”: In the new project-based configuration we anticipate the useful room capacity to actually decrease somewhat relative to when it was dedicated to maximize access to Athena workstations. This is a result of the need to accommodate project space for PBL teams. However, average usage is likely to increase more as project classes take advantage of this new resource.

Moving Toward Blended Use: We intend to experiment with combinations of scheduled PBL class use and ad-hoc student access open access as we understand the nature and times when project activities can be ‘put away’ between sessions and when they can’t. Insuring that there is secure and sufficient storage for project artifacts is one issue. Another is simply when it is and isn’t appropriate to move partially built or “in-process” components of a project activity. We want to explore making the space as useful and accessible to students as possible, without compromising the project courses.

Student focus groups suggest that collaborative work spaces that have room to ‘spread out’ and technologies aligned with the group activities will significantly enhance the delivered value from such spaces. These are characteristics typically associated with project-based learning spaces, as well. We seek to understand how to make these spaces most effective for diverse learning activities such as project-based learning, and identify the most efficient ways to scale them to provide both effective and affordable new learning environments for MIT in the 21st century.

1 MIT House_n Consortium and TIAX, LLC manage and run this research facility where new technologies and design concepts can be tested and evaluated in the context of everyday living.
2 Note that use of both audio and video capture requires appropriate review and permission by COHUES and compliance to insure privacy and personal data are protected.