Project-based Learning: How Education Becomes More Relevant to the Real World

With the national unemployment rate hovering between eight and 10 percent, colleges and universities are under greater pressure to deliver an education that will lead to jobs. At Alfred State, that's exactly what we're doing.

Changing the Way Students Learn

One way Alfred State helps students prepare for employment is a teaching style called "project-based learning." Project-based learning is a dynamic, engaging method that helps students learn by doing. Typically they're challenged by a project that demands inquiry and hypothesizing as to how they will solve the problem. It teaches critical and original thinking. They learn to cooperate and solve problems in teams.

Part of project-based learning is asking students to achieve skills and competencies they've never accomplished before. When they rise to that challenge, they learn to synthesize all the factors around them, actively apply previous knowledge, and ultimately 'think on their feet' and come to a conclusion.

Better Training Makes Education More Relevant

Bill Goodrich, president of LeChase Construction, is a firm believer in project-based learning. He graduated from Alfred State in the '80s and has hired more than 40 employees from the college. "Alfred State consistently brings into the classroom what's happening in the marketplace. This produces grads who clearly know the field they're going into and what's expected. That's why I think project-based learning helps make excellent employees."

Students here often engage in internships or civic work that put them directly in their subject area, applying their skills and knowledge. Surveying engineering students travel to New Mexico to intern with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Nursing students do clinical hours in the area and regional hospitals. Electrical trades students install solar lighting at the U.S. National Arboretum and teach homeowners, contractors, and engineers on how to use it.

Set Expectations High, but Within Reach

With project-based learning, the challenge is to set the expectations high, provide support and belief in your student, and get out of the way. The payoffs are huge. Students discover they're capable of far more than they realized. It permanently changes them. They learn how to relax and think when confronted with something they don't know. This type of learning has led Alfred State students to do amazing things like build a zero energy green home, modify alternative fuel vehicles, design and present a port facility in Italy, and apply their knowledge to help those in need in Missouri and Louisiana.

As Matthew Lawrence, professor in the mechanical and electrical engineering technology department, observes about one of his projects, "The growth of the students, the pride, the confidence they gained by a project this challenging would never happen in a lecture/theory class. They've been tested in labs that are far more like the real world."

Over the years, we have found that this approach to education yields a high percentage of our graduates being employed or having been accepted into a program to continue their education. Of those employed, most are working in their field of study. Those are results that we can be proud of.