As educators, we know that students learn best by doing. Why, then, do we lecture at our students to teach them ecological concepts? As ecologists we understand that how systems work are variable and depend on multiple factors, and that the best way to discover ecological concepts is to study them first hand - to actually do the research. In Fall 2015 I taught a 300-level course in Advanced Ecology as an entirely project-based course. Students were responsible for observing an aspect of a system (in this case the temperate deciduous forests of central New York), posing a question and making a hypothesis, conducting the field work, analyzing the data, writing up the study in manuscript format, and presenting a poster of their work to the campus community. I then compared the student experience and learning objectives with the previous time I taught the course. This project was conducted at Wells College, a small liberal arts school located in Aurora, NY.
At midterm I asked “what is the one thing that you have learned in Advanced Ecology this semester?” Of 18 survey responses, 8 discussed the process of science, such as “Things don’t always go according to plan, and you have to be able/willing to adapt.” In answer to “is project based learning a good way for you to learn? 17 of 18 students said “yes”, and commented that “I learn better by doing activities, not listening to a lecture.” At the end of the class the students embraced project-based learning, commenting “I loved coming up with a project and investigating stuff that I was interested in.” Of 30 students in the course, 50% got an A and only 1 student, who stopped working on their project (but who did come to the final poster session), failed. This was a much better result from the prior time I taught the course, where the majority of students got C’s and D’s. As a student said on the course evaluation: “The class was great. I learned a lot of valuable skills and I’m REALLY glad I took this course.” For me, the workload was similar to a lecture based course, but more enjoyable.