Project-based learning and problem-based learning are very similar and are often confused or used interchangeably. Both are student-centered and often focused on open-ended, real-world tasks. Teachers act as facilitators and guide students toward completion. Collaboration with other students is common. Solving the problem requires contemplation and critical thinking which stimulates learning. Setting goals and hypothesis-testing are proven learning methods that are incorporated into both.
With project-based learning, students define project results they want to achieve and plan how to get there. This usually requires combining existing knowledge with research and experimentation. Students learn by applying knowledge and skills to complete the project. The result is often a tangible product or performance.
With problem-based learning, the student defines a driving question that is answered through completion of their project. As there is no predetermined outcome to be achieved, the student will need to investigate using a combination of existing and newly learned knowledge. The result may be a study or presentation.
The SmartLab® Approach
Every learning engagement in the SmartLab® incorporates elements of project-based and problem-based learning. Learners, working in pairs or larger teams, establish a “SMART” project objective of their own design. Objectives that focus on an outcome (e.g., build and program a robotic platform that can automatically align a photovoltaic panel to the position of the sun) can be classified as project-based learning. Project objectives may also be defined as a compelling question (e.g., build and test various truss configurations to determine which is best for a bridge design).
Learners do not typically focus on distinctions between project-based and problem-based learning in the SmartLab®. Rather, the emphasis is on solving problems, effective collaboration and project management, and on documenting and presenting learning. Hands-on, minds-on projects form the very core of the SmartLab® program. Project engagements are not rigidly structured activities but are motivated by genuine learner inquiry and a problem-based perspective. While every SmartLab® project is different, all projects follow a similar process:
- Students create SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) project objectives in collaboration with their facilitator
- Projects are designed and developed to meet the objective
- Projects are multidisciplinary and utilize applied technologies
- Problem-solving is emphasized and failure celebrated as an opportunity to learn
- Process skills such as collaboration and time-management are emphasized and assessed
- Students document their process, learning and achievements in their ePortfolio