Design Features for Project-Based Learning
Section 2 | return to introduction and contents

Significance of the Study
       The significance of the study was based on newly defined societal and 
educational expectations as a result of the transition from the industrial era to the knowledge era. The new expectations were: (a) the changing roles and responsibilities of work, family, and community life; (b) the learning outcomes needed to meet the changing roles and responsibilities; (c) the learning processes that supported the achievement of the learning expectations; and (d) the features of the physical environment that enhanced a selected learning process--collaborative, project-based learning. 

        Changing Learning Expectations and Related Educational Initiatives
        To support the need for changing learning expectations, the U. S. Department of Labor's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) (1991) recommended a set of skills needed by workers of the new century. Among the skills were the ability to: (a) 
reason; (b) think creatively; (c) make decisions; (d) solve problems; (e) work in teams; (f) 
work well with people of other cultures; (g) understand, monitor, correct, design, and 
improve systems; (h) select appropriate technology and apply it to specific tasks, and (i) 
direct their own personal and professional growth through lifelong learning. 
       In 1996, the National Skills Standards Board (NSSB) was formed to determine 
national industry standards from which learners and employees would show competency 
in skill areas. One part of the vision of the NSSB was to encourage educational 
institutions to implement processes to ease the recording and acceptance of completed 
credits and assessment from one institution to another. A second part of the vision was to 
encourage educational institutions and business/industry partners to establish common 
competencies and common assessment tools. Another federal initiative, sponsored by the 
U. S. Department of Labor, to address the changing needs of work, family, and 
community was The Workforce Investment Act of 1998. The Act recognized the need to 
provide necessary family and social service support systems for people while they 
developed their workforce skills.
        At the same time, other state and federal initiatives were established for 
identifying learning outcomes or expectations, for establishing new methods for 
assessment, and increasing accountability to legislators and taxpayers. According to the 
League for Innovation in the Community College (1999), the outcomes identified for 21st 
century learners included achievement of strong (a) communication skills; (b) 
computation skills that included the capability of reasoning, analyzing, and using 
numerical data; (c) community skills of citizenship, diversity and pluralism; (c) local, 
global, and environmental awareness; (d) critical thinking and problem solving skills; (e) 
information management skills; (f) interpersonal skills including teamwork, relationship 
management, conflict resolution, and workplace skills; and (g) personal skills that 
included management of change, learning to learn, and personal responsibility. 
       In summary, the impact of moving from the industrial age through the
technology age to the knowledge age spanned the boundaries of work, family, and 
community. The skills needed to effectively fulfill the roles and responsibilities in the 
three areas were far different than those needed for the industrial age. The last two 
decades of the 20th century saw youths and adults: (a) working and living within systems 
of different cultures; (b) actively participating in the global economy; (c) contributing 
new thinking to work, family, and community by engaging in team work creating new 
products and solving problems; and (d) managing their own lifelong learning. To fulfill 
the roles and responsibilities, youths and adults sought more active, relevant 
opportunities to learn the skills required to actively participate and make contributions to 
their work, to their families, and to their communities. The new roles, responsibilities, 
and expectations of the learners indicate changing learning processes.

       Changing Learning Processes. Dede (1993) described the changing learning 
processes that were needed to prepare learners for the work place and in society. The 
different learning processes needed to change from "the more traditional classroom-
based, discipline-focused, learning-by-listening approaches" to " just-in-time, life- and 
work-focused, and learning-while-doing approaches" that were linked to everyday 
situations (p. 3). The changing learning expectations needed for transformation in work, 
family, and community roles and responsibilities required new, more active learning 
processes. According to Skolnikoff (1994), educational institutions needed to provide 
programs in which learners learned to think and became participants in the larger world. 
        Collaborative, project-based learning teaches many of the above skills through the 
active process of designing, developing, and producing products in the forms of 
information, service, or goods. This learning process occurs through grouping learners 
into various sized groups depending upon what learning activity is taking place. Direct 
and guided instruction is often presented to larger groups of learners by a faculty member 
or teaching team. Exploration and discovery can occur with or without a faculty member 
and can happen individually, in small groups and teams, or within larger groups. Project 
work more often happens in teams and includes community and business members as 
resource people and advisors for the projects.


        To support and enhance collaborative, project-based learning, how do community 
colleges design physical learning environments in which learners successfully gain the 
understanding and skills to meet the challenges of their future? The study was designed to 
seek knowledge and understanding of the design features of the physical learning 
environment that support and enhance the above learning activities at the community 
college level and to ascertain the thinking behind the selection of the features. To acquire 
this knowledge and understanding, I chose architects and educators as participants and 
conducted the research in settings where physical environments are designed and in 
which collaborative, project-based learning takes place. The design of the data collection 
and analysis processes used in this study included three phases. 
       Phase I of the study included site visits to two schools in the Twin Cities area of 
Minnesota, the School for Environmental Studies and the Interdistrict Downtown School 
and an internship with LSW Architects, PC in Vancouver, Washington. Phase II involved 
attending a project-based learning workshop at the National Council for Occupational 
Education Annual Conference and the international conference, Innovative Alternatives 
in Learning Environments, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects' Committee 
for Education, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, and the National Clearinghouse for 
Educational Facilities. The third and most intense phase of the research was a two-day 
design studio that I conducted to produce designs of physical learning environments that 
supported and enhanced collaborative, project-based learning.
       The participants brought different perspectives and sets of experiences to the 
study. The educators' experience in teaching and learning ranged from kindergarten 
through lifelong learning in formal and informal learning setting. Content areas included 
basic education, technical education, college preparatory, and postsecondary education. 
The architects brought experience and expertise in all phases of educational facility 
design including new construction, renovation, and facilities master planning. Figure 1 
shows: (a) the phases, events, methods and dates of data collection; (b) the 
interrelationships between the phases; and (c) the analysis processes used.

Data Gathering and Analysis Processes
Phase 1A
Site Visits 5/99
Observation ParticipationNotesReflection
Text Analysis
Phase 1B
Participation in:
Master Planning Process
Pre-design Process
Renovation Process  10/99 - 6/00
Observation ParticipationNotesReflection
Text Analysis
Phase 2A
Attended the National Council for Occupational Education Conference 10/00
ParticipationAudio Interviews
Text & Audio Analysis
Phase 2B
Attended the Innovative Alternatives in Learning Environments Conference 11/00
Observation ParticipationE-mail Interviews
Text & Audio Analysis
Phase 3
Conducted Two-day Design Studio  3/01
Observation Audio Interviews Journal EntriesMaterials & Designs from Participants
Video Analysis NotesReflection
Text, Audio & Video Analysis


        Descriptions and findings of the design features of the physical learning 
environment that support and enhance collaborative, project-based learning and the 
rationale for the features that were identified in each of the three phases are described and 
illustrated through the following verbal descriptions and graphical images. My 
interpretation or clarification of participant quotes appears within brackets. Specific sites 
in Phase I included the School of Environment Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota and 
the Interdistrict Downtown School in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. The internship 
activities and sites were all in Vancouver, Washington. Postsecondary level education 
sites in The Netherlands visited in Phase II of the study included Utrecht University, 
Hogeschool van Amsterdam, and Icthus College. Other sites included several primary 
and secondary sites and the cities of The Hague and Hilversum. Phase III did not include 
site visits.

Phase I of the Study
       School of Environment Studies. The School of Environmental Studies (SES) was 
designed and funded in partnership with the Independent School District (ISD) 196, the 
Minnesota Zoological Gardens, and the City of Apple Valley, Minnesota and is located 
next to the Zoological (Zoo) Gardens. "The city provided the bonding and the zoo gave 
the 12 acres," according to Dan Bodette, Principal of SES (conference presentation, 
November 10, 2000). 
       The SES is a focus or magnet school for ISD 196 high school juniors and seniors 
using environmental studies as the theme for learning. Being located next to the Zoo, 
learners have access to 2,700 animal species and 500 acres of wetlands and woods 
(Smith, 1996). During the tour, Bodette stated that the learning at SES is connected and 
relevant to real-life projects locally and globally and the design [of the physical 
environment] encourages integration of curriculum and teaching.
       The learning process at the SES integrates language arts, social studies, and 
environmental sciences using an environmental theme in an interdisciplinary, 
collaborative, project-based approach. Steve Hage, a zoological education specialist on 
loan to the school from the Zoo, was cited by Smith (1996) as saying, "We talk about 
what it means to lose a wetland, about environmental economics, government law, and 
how it affects the Endangered Species Act and the International Boundary Waters 
Agreement" (p. 27). The learners attend the theme classes in the morning and the elective 
classes in mathematics, science, foreign language, and technology classes in the 
afternoon (Smith, 1996). 
       The learners practice becoming community leaders by accepting and solving 
problems as part of community-based projects. According to Smith (1996), "After getting 
their hands dirty like real scientists, learners used technology to synthesize and share their 
knowledge with the staff at the Zoo, and community and governmental leaders" (p. 26). 
The learners analyze data, conduct online research, create multi-media presentations, 
produce videos, and develop computer simulations to solve the problem they choose or to 
produce a product or service given back to the local community, region, state, or for some 
projects on a global basis.

Design Features of the Physical Environment
       During the site visit to the SES, the natural setting in which the facility was placed first drew my attention. The setting includes a pond, stand of trees, and pathways that are used as learning laboratories. There were teams of students engaged in activities in the pond when we arrived. When I entered the SES, the first feature of the interior physical environment that I noticed was a large space that opened up off of the entryway. I learned that the space has no singular purpose but was designed for a variety of uses, could seat all 400 learners plus staff and was described using such terms as, a commons, cafeteria, gallery, presentation, and conference space. The large, common space was furnished with easily moveable, collapsible, and stackable furniture and included aquariums, terrariums, and a wall, in which plants grew. The south facing wall included two-story, floor to ceiling windows to bring in natural light and provided a view overlooking the pond and woods.
       Other walls showcased pictures of learners actively involved in their pursuits as 
well as recognition plaques for the SES honoring its curricular, staffing, and 
organizational models and for the design of the built environment. Behind the wall 
covered with plants were a computer/multi-media laboratory, an art studio, and a zoology 
laboratory. The building design was two stories with the second level overlooking the 
large, common space.
       The interior physical environment for the SES is designed for 400 learners who 
are placed into "houses" of 100 each. Each house has a team of three teachers who guide 
the theme studies to the same 100 learners all year long. The learners work with other 
teachers in elective classes and with community members who are involved in the theme 
studies courses.
       The small size of the SES provides an open and flexible physical environment 
that supports a wide variety of learning experiences and the "houses" provide for 
personalized learning experiences through the care and guidance of the staff (Copa, 
Bodette, & Birkey, 1999). The four house spaces are located on the second floor and each 
house has: (a) a central, common area that can seat all 100 learners and is used for group 
instruction, (b) project work space, (c) spaces for small and large group work, and (d) 
"pods" (Smith, 1996), each designed for ten learners on three sides of the perimeter of the 
central, common area. The design features of the "pods" include: (a) individual 
workstations with personal, lockable storage, (b) a display space for each learner to 
personalize her/his space, and (c) access to a computer. 
       The central area of each house has adjacent science laboratory, seminar, teaching 
team, and storage spaces for supplies and projects. At the time of my visit, there were six 
computers in each house in addition to the twenty in the multi-media laboratory located 
on the first floor. The SES was to be receiving additional individual computer 
workstations and one more multi-media laboratory in the near future. 
       Part of what prompted and motivated my interest in the design of the physical 
learning environment and its connection to quality learning came from some of the 
observations made and conversations held while on the site visit. The points of interest 
       1. The use of collaborative, project-based learning processes that tied the
learning to local, regional, and global environmental problems. 
       2. The knowledge (e.g., self-knowledge, content knowledge, and 
community to global knowledge) and the skills (e.g., putting knowledge to practice, being 
skilled communicators, and actively contributing to producing products and services for 
others) that were explained and demonstrated by the learners.
       3. The explanation by the teaching and administrative staff and the
learners themselves that many of the students came to school at least an hour before the 
scheduled start of the day and often had to be asked to go home at the end of the day. 
       4. The well-maintained and clean appearance of the building, which had
been open for four years and received heavy use by the learners and the community. The 
learners continually went in and out of the facility several times a day in all weather 
conditions but I saw no stains on the carpet or other signs of disrespect for the learning 
        5. The explanation by the learners themselves that even though they have
lockable space in their desks, they leave their personal belongings out and on top of their 
desks because there is little theft or vandalism. 
        The School of Environmental Studies was intriguing not only because of the 
innovative design of the physical environment, but also because collaborative, project-
based learning processes were used and the learners demonstrated what seemed to be 
significant learning. The sense of pride and ownership shown by the learners and staff 
indicated that the SES was a unique place for learning.

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