A Model for Project-Based, Interdisciplinary Learning

“To develop coursework that mirrors the world beyond campus, faculty members must climb out of their disciplinary silos and engage in open-ended exploration alongside their students,” writes reporter Beth McMurtrie in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The story looks at JMU X-Labs, a four-year-old program at James Madison University that combines project-based learning and unscripted, open-ended research to help students develop ways to tackle complex societal problems. For example, a group of students could design a drone to ameliorate environmental problems or develop medical technology to help with the opioid crisis in the U.S. Students at the end of the program produce a prototype of product or service, although some groups do not make it to this final stage of planning.

“In the age of standardized tests, where there’s always a rubric and right answer and a checklist to get an A, some students can’t handle that,” X-Labs head Nick Swayne said in the story. “We’ve had some students say, ‘This is crazy, I can’t do that.’ We’ve had some faculty say, ‘This is crazy, I’m used to being in charge and you can’t do that.’ We say, ‘This is life.’”

The lab’s courses are modeled after design thinking, a concept developed by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or “d.school.” Students read and interview sources extensively and then present their findings as a team to faculty, who critically evaluate their ideas. In this approach, the research and development process is as important as the final product.

Faculty use backward design to create the courses and evaluate students through portfolio-style assessments. Some professors said that they continue to hear about students developing their ideas even after class is over. “The confidence they build from trial and error seems to have a pretty big effect because they see that a failure isn’t a life failure,”  Patrice Ludwig, an assistant professor of biology who has been involved with X-Labs since its inception, said in the story.