For the past year, I have been working with a committee and group of advisors to bring the first Landscape Architecture (LA) baccalaureate degree program to the University of Delaware (UD). I spend my free time looking at focus-group data, the LA Body of Knowledge Study Report, accreditation standards, university requirements, and curriculum maps. As I study this information, I realize how well landscape architecture programs support 21st century university goals, such as community engagement through the use of active studio projects. During this review, I have also began to ponder how educators keep GenerationZ students interested and engaged in the classroom – especially in the support courses that are still offered as traditional lecture classes.
In 2015, UD was one of 240 U.S. colleges and universities to attain first time, or reclassified status as a Carnegie Foundation Engaged University. During the process, I was frequently tapped to share stories of the community-based projects I run each semester. When speaking to professional educators and interested community members from diverse fields, they often point to my subject matter – landscape architecture and design – as an easy topic to embed community engagement projects and support active learning. I will admit, at first glance, it may seem easier than many subjects, like history, philosophy, or knowledge-based subjects like plant materials, but community-based active learning can become the focus of any classroom.
According to the Carnegie Foundation, “community engagement describes collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” Landscape architecture programs easily lead the way in community engagement with a long-standing tradition of community outreach and projects that lend themselves to real world problems. But, as I rewrite curriculum for the new LA program I can’t help but think – what more can we do to engage the community and benefit our students?
One idea is to embed project-based learning in all core LA classes – not just in studios. I recently finished teaching a project-based learning (PBL) workshop to educators in the Palo Alto Community College system. Although PBL has traditionally been defined as problem-based learning, I use the acronym to define project-based learning given the nature of the studio and design classes I teach.
In practice, project-based learning lends itself well to studio projects, but is also a good practice in every classroom. When faced with the challenge to keep GenZ students (the most diverse and interactive generation to date) interested and engaged in the classroom, we should consider several strategies. With the understanding that these students are plugged in and gain instant access to knowledge, how will we keep them interested in attending traditional lecture classes? At UD, the trend in lecture-based classes, including plant identification, is for students to watch recorded lectures outside of the classroom rather than showing up in person. Since this is a growing trend, what can educators do during class time to engage learners and embed concepts? Does it make sense to use the time to lecture the few students who actually show for class?
We know from our experiences teaching studio that PBL lends itself to the acquisition of 21st century competencies such as communication, collaboration, creative problem solving, and innovation, as well as a deeper learning of content. In classrooms where the delivery of content knowledge is deemed a priority, the inclusion of PBL allows students to embed content as they express their ideas to each other, their community partners, or in preparation for presentations to a public audience. Courses such as plant materials, history of landscape architecture, and professional practice seminars tend to rely on lectures rather than experiential learning. Imagine a program that utilizes experiential learning methods in all classes. In doing so, educators will provide the highest quality experience for students to become engaged learners, community partners, and citizens.
To apply PBL to any class, I suggest talking to community members and practitioners to develop a semester-based positioning question. This question, or posed assessment, becomes the thesis that captures the heart of the project, or projects, in a clear and compelling language. The framing of the positioning question creates excitement and compels the students to fully investigate the subject matter. Students are given a sense of a larger purpose and are challenged to consider complex topics that are timely and broadly applied.
For example, in a plant materials class, a semester based positioning question like, “Are we fighting a losing battle against invasive plants?” may lead toward authentic student-driven inquiry. Ultimately, students would be able to contribute their findings to the community and develop their ideas in an advocacy program. Along the way, they would need to demonstrate learning in plant materials, but that could become a self-study of the lecture slides and a lab-based demonstrations similar to how we all learned in school. In turn, class time could be dedicated to debate, policy review, peer to peer sharing of resources, or stakeholder meetings.
A well-designed positioning question allows students to take ownership of the course content and sometimes the course itself – asking if they can alter their assignments to better fit their interest. I have seen cases of well-designed PBL classrooms go far and beyond an educator’s expectations; students actively reach out to stakeholders, organize letter-writing campaigns, attend community-sponsored events and demonstrations, and find purpose and meaning in their education, while fully articulating many sides of a complex problem.
It is my hope that landscape architecture programs will continue to lead in the attainment of university goals, such as community engagement, while examining ways to further embed active learning into the overall program structure in order to capture the student’s imagination, while preparing GenerationZ for the 21st century work environment.
For additional information about project based learning, visit the Buck Institute for Education, and see John Larmer’s article on Edutopia, Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL.
For information about the Carnegie Foundation, visit http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/
by Jules Bruck, PHD, PLA, ASLA, Education and Practice PPN Co-Chair