A Study in Project-Based Learning

Most students learn best through hands-on projects and experiences, guided by teachers - learning by doing. It works.

An example is the group of students who, after only their first year of college, outperformed teams of graduate students from much larger research universities in a national ecological-design competition this summer.

Their work was based on a first year seminar that used a new green building as its curriculum. As one of their first-year courses, the students had examined the water systems of Hampshire's new, 17,000-square-foot R.W. Kern Center, which features a net-zero-water system: the building supplies 100 percent of its own water by collecting rainwater, uses advanced composting toilets, and treats its own gray water draining from sinks and fountains using natural processes on-site. The building isn't connected to a sanitary sewer.

Scarcity of potable water is a serious issue worldwide. Changes in climate pose increasing risk of drought and drawdown of aquifers in more and more countries, and the world's poorest regions are least able to respond. Net-zero-water building systems are a model for how communities can save water as a natural resource.

Starting last fall, the students in the Integrated Sciences class worked together to design and build test wetland boxes to study the building's gray-water-treatment system. One of the goals of the course, conceived and co-taught by four professors, Sarah Hews (mathematics), Christina Cianfrani (hydrology), Jason Tor (microbiology), and Seeta Sistla (ecosystem ecology), was to demonstrate opportunities for collaboration across fields of science and math. In their first semester of college, these students led one another through weekly labs. They studied problem-based research questions, and learned complex systems, systems thinking, and quantitative skills.

Over the semester, the students discovered that their wetland boxes most improved the quality of the gray water when the soil and root systems caught the larger unwanted particles, resulting in a decrease in turbidity (cloudiness from sediment), phosphate levels, and total dissolved solids. They were then able to mathematically explore alternatives within the system, using Stella software to understand the impacts of changing variables such as water composition and flow rate.

In the spring term, eight of the students continued their research by leading their own independent projects. The depth of their learning was tested on a national scale over the summer when six of them--Aldyn Markle, Claire Shillington, Karen Panke, Abbi Wilson, Joe McGlynn, and Matt Raymond--took part in the American Ecological Engineering Society (AEES) annual meeting, held at the University of Tennessee. There, they presented their findings.

They also competed against teams of graduate students studying sustainable ecosystem design and engineering, representing the nation's top public universities, with enrollments of 20,000 to 64,0000. The challenge was to design a natural filter in a four-foot-tall, six-inch-diameter clear plastic tube to remove the pollutant nitrates and phosphates from storm water.

All the teams received gravel, river sand, topsoil, compost, clay loam, shredded hardwood mulch biochar, and oxidized steel wool as potential materials to use. The objective was to remove the most nutrients and suspended sediment at the fastest infiltration rate at the lowest cost.

The Hampshire team--from a college of 1,400 undergrads (other campuses would refer to them as five freshmen and one sophomore, terms Hampshire doesn't use)--earned first place in the two-day competition.

How did they do it?

Two students, Shillington and Markle, stepped up as co-leaders; both had studied filtration as independent research during spring semester. Markle had compared the effectiveness of filtration between two gray-water systems, a Drawer Compact Sand Filter and a Wetland box. Her long-term goal, she said, was to develop treatment systems for residential gray water for use in urban community gardens. Shillington's spring research was studying the Kern Center's treatment system, with the aim of predicting the amount of gray water that will be circulated through the building and released into the outdoor wetland. Her work promises to inform and improve water filtration design for future green-building construction.

The competition at the AEES conference was very much a group effort, as all the students had research experience, and teamwork was a scoring criterion. As Markle reported in a story on our website, the team members quickly determined that microbial treatment wasn't an effective filter solution because of the short time frame for the challenge. The team also knew that, although soil was a material they could have used, this would increase the turbidity and lead to the filtered storm water coming out looking "like tea," as Shillington described it. Ultimately, they decided to take the steel wool, dissolve it in vinegar, and mix it with the sand to remove phosphates. To eliminate nitrates, they used mulch biochar. The combination of materials would reduce the turbidity.

In the end, Hampshire's team removed 100 percent of the phosphates, 98 percent of the turbidity, and 17 percent of the nitrates.

The judges awarded the team the highest score for the filter's effectiveness and cost, teamwork, and the students' ability to articulate their design in a mock TV commercial (see it at https://youtu.be/Boyp0Xw8ekM).

Placing first was a wonderful surprise for the team. But our students' comfort with teamwork is not a surprise -- one way we at Hampshire promote teamwork is, we don't give grades. Ever. Instead, professors evaluate students using narratives. Hampshire employs this method because it's exponentially more informative for learning: evaluations give students meaningful, constructive feedback they can learn from and act on. But a wonderful outgrowth of forgoing grades has been a pervasive collaboration among students. Our students never have to compete at class rank or vie to be valedictorian.

The goal of Hampshire's unique curriculum, developed by educators from our four distinguished founding colleges here in Amherst, is to prepare each student to lead their own year-long, advanced independent capstone project under the advisement of a faculty committee they recruit. We assert that students learn best -- not when they are taught or lectured at -- but when they are given independence to direct their own learning under the guidance of teachers. Year after year we see extraordinary accomplishments that come when education is not imposed, but is active.

Or, in the words of Claire Shillington, as she reflected on her team's confidence in the engineering-design contest: "If you had told me a year ago I would be able to do this, I wouldn't have believed you," she said, "but we knew exactly what we wanted to do."