Research Summary

Integrating problem- and project-based learning opportunities: assessing outcomes of a field course in environment and sustainability

Teaching That Combines Problem-Based and Service-Learning Components in Environmental Education Benefits All Stakeholders

Environmental Education Research

In recent years, colleges and universities have increased their development of environmental education and sustainability programs as a result of the United Nations Earth Summit. At this conference, members emphasized the need to implement sustainability programs at higher education levels to improve students’ understanding of environmental issues. In planning such programs, institutions must determine the most informative teaching methods and model programs accordingly. This study analyzed a course that used experiential learning, specifically project- and problem-based learning. Through this research, the authors looked at using incentives that add value to students, university members, and community clients.

Experiential learning, which includes problem- and project-based learning as well as service learning, has been a popular teaching method because it provides students with real-world experiences that they may use in their profession. With project- and problem-based learning, students work as members of a team and learn time management, gain opportunities for networking, and interact with various stakeholders. Service learning requires students to collect data for a community and make a recommendation for the problem at hand. This method encourages the students serve as direct consultants to the community. Both of these methods may be time consuming for students, faculty members, and the client involved. Consequently, the authors sought to explain the value and benefits associated with a teaching model that combines problem-based and service learning.

The study uses evaluation research to assess a course offered at the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Since 2011, the university has partnered with Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve (RLBR), which serves as a rural agricultural farm that allows students to learn about sustainability. In 2015, the university developed a new model for the program’s introductory field course that combined problem-based and service learning. The updated course was designed to provide students an understanding of sustainability issues on agricultural land such as biodiversity, pollution, and erosion. All thirteen students enrolled in the course participated in the study. The students were divided into four teams, each of which served as a consultant for a farmer from RLBR to imitate real-world consulting firms. They participated in a two-day classroom session followed by a one-week accelerated field course in which they collected data and met with community stakeholders. After the field course, the teams had six weeks to produce a report on environmental sustainability for their respective clients.

The researchers asked students to complete self-evaluation surveys before and after the course. Students recorded their responses in twelve categories, ranging from their sustainability knowledge to their professional skills. In addition to the students’ surveys, clients also provided feedback regarding the students’ work and their individual performance. Lastly, faculty members and course assistants discussed the course outcomes with the researchers. The authors identified common themes from the responses to determine what benefits, if any, were associated with this particular field course.

The results demonstrated that students felt they improved in all aspects of professional experience and sustainability knowledge. Many students felt that the work met the field course learning objectives and that the outcomes were useful for future work and professional development. Similarly, the clients were satisfied with the course outcomes and believe the experience was worthwhile. All four clients strongly agreed that the students’ work met their expectations and that they had an overall positive experience. Additionally, the course benefited university faculty members who used the students’ data to design environment and sustainability research databases.

Due to the nature of this field course and the various parties involved, the course fees and time commitment were more than other courses. However, both community and university members felt that despite this drawback, the lessons learned were worthwhile. A secondary limitation was the lack of time associated with the accelerated course, making it difficult for students to reflect upon the new skills they have learned. Lastly, this type of field course requires flexibility and constant communication between leaders, which may be difficult to achieve and maintain throughout the course. Despite these limitations associated with the course, the authors feel that knowledge from this study may be applied to other institutions with similar course goals.

The authors concluded that designing a course model that integrates service learning with project and problem-based learning produces beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders involved. They suggest that this teaching method may be used at other institutions that have a similar structure and goals.

The Bottom Line

With the growing development of environmental sustainability programs at higher education institutions, developing teaching models that will properly prepare students for successful careers in their field is imperative. This study demonstrates that combining problem-based and service learning provides value to the stakeholders involved, despite additional costs and time commitments. This model allows students to gain real-world experience while simultaneously learning a variety of research methods. Similarly, it provides beneficial outcomes such as a strong connection between education and practice, collaboration among faculty and community members, and relationship development that can lead to in-depth environmental and social research among higher education institutions.