The concept of “project-based learning” – of taking students out of the classroom and teaching lessons through hands on, collaborative activities – is not a new one. In fact, according to Brookdale chemistry professor Tom Berke, it’s about 2,500 years old.
But the method is gaining popularity at colleges across the country, as faculty and administrators seek out new ways to teach in-demand skills and encourage students to apply their coursework to real-world issues.
At Brookdale, more than 100 students and a growing cohort of employees are already at work on a series of project-based learning initiatives, collectively run under the banner of The Innovation Network (TIN). And this fall, for the first time, Brookdale will offer a new course section devoted entirely to project-based learning on the Lincroft campus.
TIN, which began as a small pilot program in 2014, has grown into a college-wide, interdisciplinary reimagining of the higher education experience, offering students the opportunity to supplement their coursework by designing and carrying out projects that benefit their school and the communities they live in.
“We look at two things: what do the students need to learn, and how can they make a difference,” said Berke, who spearheaded the initiative alongside fellow members of Brookdale’s Global Citizenship Project (GCP). “The results, so far, have been tremendous.”
In Fall 2014, Berke enlisted a team of fellow faculty and administrators to serve as members of a new TIN Council, and to outline a group project for an inaugural cohort of TIN students.
Those council members – assistant communications professor Debbie Mura; environmental science instructor Juliette Goulet; Innovation Center director Norah Kerr-McCurry; and educational services outcome assessment director Katherine Edward – also developed benchmarks and course rubrics for the project, ensuring the TIN students would learn specific skills and could be graded on their work.
In Spring 2015, twelve students were granted release from one of their classes to participate, and the group was given one simple task: “the greening of Brookdale.”
“That’s it,” said Mura. “That’s all we gave them. They had to identify a project on their own. And they found the rain gardens.”
The first TIN cohort identified a series of rain gardens installed on the Lincroft campus in 2010 as part of state-funded grant project, two of which had fallen into disrepair. The gardens – comprised of water-absorbing plants that help filter out pollutants and protect nearby watersheds – needed some work.
“We expected them to come up with a plan. They did that, then they went ahead and fixed the gardens,” Mura said. “They researched the gardens, they learned how to repair them, they raised funds on their own and they did the planting. Again and again, they exceeded our expectations.”
The core TIN group – comprised of students studying environmental science, journalism, business and other subjects – was also joined by roughly a dozen student volunteers and campus club representatives, each of whom wanted to get involved.
Whether they were working to delegate tasks, schedule meetings, raise funds, design plant beds, coordinate with college administration or promote the initiative to the campus community, TIN participants were able to develop skills in their chosen career field while learning and applying new skills from a wide range of other disciplines.
“I found that our project team really thrived being out in the field, working hands-on to accomplish the task at hand,” said former TIN team leader Lindsay Gunn. “I learned new leadership skills, problem solving, and the value of working on a team.”
The success of the pilot project carried over to the following fall, as more faculty and students sought to become a part of TIN. The greening theme continued, as did the focus on student-led projects. TIN students selected two environmentally driven initiatives for the 2015-16 school year: solar energy and composting.
Both projects, which are still ongoing, involve intensive research into the possibility of large-scale, sustainable energy initiatives at Brookdale. TIN members also decided to branch out from campus this year, putting their skills to work for local community members in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
TIN students volunteered for Habitat’s ongoing Neighborhood Rejuvenation initiative in Long Branch, which is working to restore community infrastructure and rebuild homes in the superstorm Sandy-impacted town. Through the partnership, TIN students were able to research local neighborhoods, speak with residents and local officials and provide valuable input into the design and rebuilding process.
TIN members and volunteers have also worked to support Habitat for Humanity’s new ReStore in Freehold, which sells furniture, appliances, building materials and other necessary items to families in need at a fraction of their regular cost. TIN volunteers collected, donated and sold student artwork to raise funds for the ReStore, while helping to set up, support and promote the store itself.
Each of those initiatives will continue in 2016-17, with an expected TIN membership of more than 100 students and volunteers and a growing list of faculty and administrative partners. College administrative offices, including the Innovation Center and Educational Services, will continue to provide technical and logistical support to TIN, helping the initiative expand and ensuring its success for both students and faculty.
And this fall, for the first time, a Brookdale course section will exclusively offer project-based learning curriculum.
Environmental Science 105, section 002RL, will use hands-on, collaborative assignments to teach students about sustainability, ecological relationships, the natural environment and man’s responsibility to the planet. Students will work in teams to support TIN’s greening efforts and develop a project of their own to address a sustainability challenge at the college or in the community.
Students will be evaluated on their project, which must include an outline, budget projections, real-world research, a term paper and an official presentation at the end of the semester.
“This project will be an opportunity for the students to gain experience working in an interdisciplinary team and synthesize concepts and ideas learned during the course,” said Goulet, who will teach the section.
For TIN council members, volunteers and student leaders, the expansion of project-based learning at Brookdale is a win-win for students, faculty and community members alike.
“This has helped me tremendously,” said TIN student leader Alex Nichols, following the rain garden build last year. “It may sound incredibly boring, but TIN is actually really, really fun. I was able to work on my own time, create my own schedule – I was able to feel like an adult, and learn like an adult. It felt like I had a job, and it was great.”
Check out more photos of the TIN Greening project here.