Design Features for Project-Based Learning
Section 9 | return to introduction and contents


According to Strange and Banning (2001) physical features of a campus 
environment can hinder or promote learning (p.31). The study resulted in 44 features 
being identified and described that are pertinent to supporting and enhancing 
collaborative, project-based learning. The study suggested that to support and enhance 
collaborative, project-based learning, the physical environment needed the following 
functional areas in which the above learning activities occurred:
• Gathering spaces,
• Planning spaces,
• Resource spaces (e.g., library, media, technology, faculty offices),
• Exploration and discovery spaces,
• Production spaces,
• Practice spaces,
• Presentation spaces,
• Community spaces,
• Direct instructional spaces,
• Informal instructional spaces,
• Quiet, reflective spaces.
This last section will present the understandings that I gained from the study and 
give the reader the opportunity to form her/his own insights from the findings and 
understandings I formed. Table 1 summarizes the remaining 32 design features by title, 
description, and purpose as they were placed into the six categories.

Table 1

Future Research
        Through the analysis and synthesis processes, three areas emerged that appeared to warrant further exploration. The areas for future research are:
       1.  What are the systems of relationships among people and spaces that support and enhance collaborative, project-based learning?
       2.      What are the core or "fixed" elements of the design of the physical learning  environment?
       3.  How can community colleges implement collaborative, project-based learning approaches?
       What appeared to make the physical learning environment unique for collaborative, project-based learning was the need to create a system of relationships among people and learning spaces. The three designs created by the participants in Phase III visually illustrated the relationship of spaces to support the learning process. Other data from the same participants gave verbal descriptions of the relationships among the people involved in the learning activities. Reviewing the data collected in Phases I and II also indicated strong provision of systems of relationships.
       Using definitions from Merriam Webster's (1993) and the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) and understanding derived from the study, the term "relationships" referred to a state of being interrelated or belonging, establishing kinship and affinity, and being mutually connected by circumstances. These relationships come to be when connections are present in the framework of the physical environment to join or unite people and learning processes.
      Relationships are established through feelings of connectedness and familiarity. Building and maintaining relationships (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2000) requires skills in interpersonal communication and problem solving that results from sharing tasks, enhancing assurance, and creating social networks. Design of the built environment can enhance relationships by providing space and structural connections or hinder relationships by being spatially incongruent and disconnected. Rapoport (1990, 1982) described the physical environment as a series or system of relationships among things and people and provide structure, pattern, and visible cues for expected behaviors.
       The physical environment, through the use of semi-fixed elements (e.g., signs, materials, colors, forms, sizes, furnishings, and landscapes) communicates context and desirable behaviors (Rapoport, 1982, pp. 56-57, 89). One example, as described by Strange & Banning (2001), was when a learner walked into a classroom and saw the teaching podium 20 feet in front of the first rows of desks or chairs. The learner expected the upcoming learning experience to be formal and one that did not encourage participation and involvement, or the formation of relationships (p.21).

When physical and behavioral aspects of a setting are compatible, a synomorphic relationship exists. Physical structures and designs of settings allow participants to do what they desire and allows them to take full advantage of the possibilities of the setting (Strange & Banning, 2001, p. 20).

       To better understand the meaning of systems that support relationships, I turned to Capra (1996) who described two approaches, the first being the pattern of organization of the system and the second being the structure of the system. The pattern is the configuration of relationships among the system's components that determines the system's essential characteristics. The structure of a system is the physical components of the pattern of organization (pp. 158-159). Figure 6 uses the six categories of design features described in the study to illustrate a system of relationships that provide an optimal collaborative, project-based learning experience.

Evidently, then, a large part of the structure of a building consists of patterns of relationships…the fact is the elements themselves are patterns of relationships and when the elements dissolve and leave a fabric of relationships behind, that is the stuff that actually repeats itself and gives structure to a building  (Alexander, 1979, p.89).

      Alexander's words reflect the findings of the study and the need for systems of relationships among people and spaces to support and enhance collaborative, project-based learning at the community college level.
       The second concept to further explore is the area relating to the following features identified in the study: (a) core or fixed-elements and (b) layers. The essence of the third design created in Phase III was pushing at this concept. The participant who prepared and described the design spoke of the armature of the physical learning environment. That particular term did not resonate with my understanding of his concept. Looking at definitions of the term armature indicated a protective covering or shield. Other possible terms to describe the feature were framework, core or basic elements, or fixed-elements according to Rapaport (1990, 1982).
      Another feature that was described in the study was layers, which related to the concept of core or basic elements of a design of the physical learning environment. Figure 5 illustrated the layers and framework decisions to be made while creating a physical learning environment. At the center of Figure 5 was the core of what everyone involved in the design process of a physical learning environment agreed should be built. The remaining layers indicated how the rest of the learning needs would be taken care of through partnerships with community agencies, businesses, and other learning providers and would not necessarily be offered at the central site. A larger remaining layer indicated the need for the users to "finish" the design or space according to their needs. Providing the opportunity to personalize the space gives a sense of identity and ownership to the learners.
       The features flexibility and adaptability play a role in the determination of core elements. From my practice in working with architects and educators in designing physical learning environments, it has been difficult to look beyond the present to future uses and there seemed to be an overwhelming need to "over design" the spaces rather than allowing the users to finalize the process. Perhaps this practice of designing for the present and all the features was best described in the following two quotes:

Almost no building adapts well. They are not designed to adapt. They are not budgeted, financed, maintained, regulated, and taxed to adapt. But all buildings adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them change constantly. The new usages persistently retire and reshape buildings. Old churches are often torn down because the parishioners have gone and no other use can be found for the building, as lovely as it is. Old factories, because they are plain [and are designed using core elements] are revived into a collection of light industries, then into artists' studios, then offices with boutiques and restaurants on the ground floor (Brand, 1994, p. 2)

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us (quote from Winston Churchill, Brand, 1994, p. 3).

       The final area of needed research that emerged from my own community college administrative experience, practice of working with architects and educators, and the data were how to implement and support collaborative, project-based learning at the community college level. When a college administrator or faculty member wants to implement collaborative, project-based learning to provide types of learning process that prepare learners for the 21st century, they still must answer to state and federal mandates for performance and to funding sources to account for efficiencies. This decision is weighed against "time honored and worn practices and policies" focusing on numbers of learners, specific square footage allowed per learner, 50-minute time blocks, and individual silos of curriculum. State and federal mandates identify base level learning expectations for learners and stipulate the performance standards and measures the institutions will be held to (e.g., Perkins legislation, Adult Basic Education and General Equivalency Degree, and Learning Outcomes and Assessment) and funding from these sources relates to achievement of the expectations.
       According to one of the participants of the study the over-riding question is always, "what is the cost per square footage and how many FTES (full time student equivalencies) will it generate." Allocation of resources if often based on the enrollment at the institution. The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in the State of Washington establishes service levels of FTES for each of the colleges depending upon population data in the service district. Requesting funds for renovation or capital construction is based on demonstrating a positive cost benefit ratio in terms of the numbers of students to be served in the space. Institutions with a locally controlled taxing capability must answer to the same standards to the taxpayers.
      In his case study presentation at the Innovative Alternatives in Learning Environment conference, Duke described the principles for design of educational facilities from his own research. One of the principles is that the quality of the learning experience dictates the setting not vice versa.
       A participant in the study expressed frustration when saying, "We don't abandon our failures. Once a space is designed for a particular function, we cannot turn the space into something else even though it may not be providing solutions or educational opportunities as originally envisioned." Another participant in Phase III stated, "Once you build, you are passing on behaviors for another 60 to 70 years. Models of today are based on visions of the past and even the ideal model is based on the best of the past. We are stuck there." How then does a college move from historical practice and legislation, beyond the present, and look to 30-50 years in the future to design physical environments that remain useable and safe during the typical life span of the built environment?

  < Previous | February 2002 | | bilbliography >