A real-world approach fosters globally connected project-based learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Richard Larson and Elizabeth Murray

CREDIT MIT BLOSSOMS program.gifLearning in the classroom should be a source of excitement and curiosity, not a boring and dreaded task focused on the memorization of facts for standardized tests. Luckily, education trends are shifting toward project-based learning environments in which real-world problems are a driving force.

What is project-based learning, or PBL? It’s an approach that is fundamentally different from traditional methods in that it doesn’t involve teaching different subjects like math, science and literature individually. Instead, PBL begins with a discussion of a real-world issue, and ends with a potentially viable solution developed through a flexible process that includes research, testing, analysis, context and collaboration.

If we want the next generation to develop the global competencies that the 21st century demands – then we need to build better systems and enable teaching methods that prepare them now.

Research indicates that PBL inspires students to obtain a deeper understanding of the subjects they are studying, making them more likely to retain the knowledge gained. In addition, it helps students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This is particularly true when it comes to STEM education. Project learning has proven to be an effective way to engage students in science and engineering subjects, and spark students’ desire to explore, investigate and understand their world. We foster that at MIT BLOSSOMS.

Our goal now is to take PBL to the next level. The idea is to expand PBL not only through the use of technology, but also by leveraging computers, the internet as well as interactive whiteboards, global-positioning-system (GPS) devices, video and other cutting-edge tools to facilitate PBL and problem solving in real-time, at a global scale.

In June, MIT BLOSSOMS, which began as an international program aimed at improving math and science education in the developing world, launched its latest international partnership. This time, with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and its Learning Technologies Group . Our joint mission: to develop a new integrated online platform that combines BLOSSOMS’ free interactive video lessons with Technion’s Augmented World platform to enable globally connected PBL – creating a new online learning model that can facilitate STEM education involving teachers, expert scientists and fellow students from diverse nationalities.

For over nine years, MIT BLOSSOMS has worked with educators around the U.S. and the world, including Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China and Mexico. Together with these partners, BLOSSOMS has developed a free, online library of interactive video lessons designed to supplement high school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses. There are now over 200 lessons in the BLOSSOMS library, each with the goal of developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, connecting abstract concepts to the real world and demonstrating how mathematicians, scientists and engineers think.

Augmented World is a location-based social networking platform with an open and flexible system that allows users to contribute their own contents using multimedia tools (and other cutting-edge technologies).

The new integrated platform being developed will enable teachers in the U.S. and around the world to access new BLOSSOMS video lessons focused on common community problems, such as providing clean water or solving sanitation issues. The Augmented World networking platform will serve as a starting point for middle and high school classes to jointly tackle the challenging problems being presented. Students will then conduct research, adding layers of information and evidence to the platform via text, images and videos, creating dynamic information points on digital maps. The platform will also provide an online community in which students can communicate and collaborate to weigh perspectives, evaluate results and evolve ideas in an effort to find innovative solutions.

The idea is to provide young students with a diverse view of the world, one that helps create a foundation for better understanding and empathy along with diverse contexts and learning experiences. By sharing ideas and working together to solve problems, we believe we can promote innovation that leads to new ways of curing disease, feeding the world, eliminating pollution, and more.

If we want the next generation to develop the global competencies that the 21st century demands – then we need to build better systems and enable teaching methods that prepare them now. This new platform will provide a long-overdue update to STEM education – allowing students to engage regularly and deeply with world issues, while communicating and collaborating with people whose perspectives may differ from their own. It’s about complex problem-solving, information synthesizing, and globally connected teamwork.

Richard Larson is Principal Investigator of the MIT BLOSSOMS Initiative and Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.  Elizabeth Murray is Project Manager of MIT BLOSSOMS.