A new group of courses offers hands-on experience in a variety of subject areas.

This semester, the University’s Center for Pedagogical Innovation is hosting a new Academy for Project-Based Teaching and Learning. The program will incorporate teaching and learning strategies that emphasize creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Six introductory project-based courses are being taught this fall as part of the Academy. These classes include HIST381: Japan and the Atomic Bomb, taught by Professor of History Bill Johnston; PHYS113: General Physics, taught by Assistant Professor of Physics Chris Othon; PHYS115: Newtonian Mechanics, taught by Professor of Physics Brian Stewart; E&ES332: Introduction to GIS, taught by Assistant Professor of the Practice, Earth and Environmental Sciences Kim Diver; MUSC103: Materials and Design, taught by Assistant Professor of Music Roger Grant; and AMST231: Asian American History, taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies Long Bui.

Diver described the differences between courses that are a part of the Academy and other courses that are taught in a more conventional manner.

“The Academy for Project-Based Teaching and Learning cultivates an in-depth exploration of issues and skill development for a given focal area as compared to many traditional-format courses,” Diver said. “The program augments semester-long experiential learning opportunities that students already have access to, such as senior capstone courses, certain arts studio courses, and thematic-based study abroad programs. Although some departments include a senior capstone experience, the Academy provides courses with a similar experience before the final year of college.”

These new courses offer students a unique learning opportunity, as Bui expressed in an email to The Argus.

“This program will help students expand their intellectual horizons and understand that Wesleyan is part of a wider community from which we can learn much,” Bui wrote.

He explained how his class, Asian American History, takes a hands-on approach to researching the history of Asian Americans in Middletown, and how this method will deepen their understanding of the topic they are studying.

“In all of my classes we are learning to ‘decolonize’ academic knowledge, which can often be too institutionally bound,” Bui said. “To make knowledge production fun and democratic, students in my Asian American history class are interviewing local Asian restaurant owners and workers to understand their immigrant and refugee histories. They’re learning that ‘history’ is not produced only by historians but from everyone. Everyday people are organic intellectuals and students can become scholars. Their findings will be stored in the library and used [by] future scholars and those interested in the history of Asian-American Middletown.”

Grant, who is teaching a music course, expanded on how having students create, innovate, and come away with tangible products is an important aspect of project-based learning.

“This year I’m using project-based learning strategies to turn my large introductory course into a living musical laboratory,” Grant said.  “I think that focusing the course on creative processes allows my students to have some purchase on the material; it empowers them to experiment while they’re also becoming fluent in the foundational skills of music theory. I enjoy watching students problem-solve, and I especially enjoy watching students create things together…. I don’t think that project-based learning is right for every course, or even for all parts of a course, but incorporating it will allow students to leave Wesleyan with a portfolio of things they’ve built, made, designed, composed, and put into action.”

Diver also intends to utilize this hands-on approach to learning.

“For students in my course, project-based teaching becomes a collaborative endeavor in which the students engage with course content, their community-based service-learning partners, myself and the course assistants, and their peers to enhance their individual geographic literacy and spatial analysis skill sets,” Diver said.

According to Diver, one of the many benefits of this method of learning is that it can be applied to the real world, rather than being strictly academic.

“Immersing the students in a semester-long project allows the students to more fully explore certain complexities within a discipline,” Diver said. “Students who take the project-based version of the introductory GIS course have a more holistic view of spatial concepts and applications and can more readily apply the course content to future courses and research projects…. So providing students with this opportunity not only allows them to connect in meaningful ways with the course, but to also understand the complexities of real-world project scenarios. Hands-on project-based learning, in my opinion, is also a more enjoyable learning format.”

Overall, the members of the faculty participating in the Academy are very excited about this new type of teaching opportunity.

“I’m very lucky to be supported by the Academy and by the Office of the Provost in this endeavor,” Grant said. “Without their assistance, my project-based learning course wouldn’t be possible.”

Bui agreed with this statement, adding that he hopes that the University will add courses to the Academy in the semesters to come.

“The Academy made it possible for activities like mine, which are conducted off-site, to have legitimacy and support,” Bui said. “It is a fantastic campus resource that should keep on expanding.”

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