Saving the World Through Project-Based Learning

What would you say if I told you that a team of four students from a small liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana came up with an idea (“Magic Bus Ticketing”) that could improve the lives of 10 million people living in poverty all around the world? What if I told you the same group of students had the audacity to take that idea and participate in the $1million dollar Hult Prize—an international social entrepreneurship competition for over 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students sponsored by the Clinton Foundation? While this might sound surprising to some, Earlham has always attracted students who expect to change the world. So, it makes perfect sense to us that a small group of students from various backgrounds and majors came together to work collaboratively on a project of this nature. What did surprise us was the result: on September 20th, 2016, President Bill Clinton stood on stage in New York City and announced to the world that the winner of the 2016 Hult Prize was “Team Magic Bus” from Earlham College.

While this is certainly an inspiring story on its own merits (read more about it:, there is a larger message here about teaching and learning in the new century and how we can empower students in higher education to help solve real problems of global significance.

Stanley Fish famously argued that students and faculty in the modern university should “save the world on their own time.[1]” Fish thinks students should just “do their jobs” by focusing on learning discipline-specific knowledge and developing discipline-specific analytical skills. Of course students need these skills. Yet, the wicked problems of this century demand multi-perspective, collaborative-based problem-solving not typically found in discipline-specific inquiry. While our students need deep content knowledge, the world they are inheriting will need them to use that knowledge in increasingly collaborative and flexible ways. Given the magnitude of the challenges before us, from climate change, to global pandemics, to massive income inequality and violent extremism, we simply cannot afford to tell our brightest young minds to wait until after graduation to “save the world.”

There is growing evidence in support of project-based learning in higher education. The Purdue-Gallup index and George Kuh’s work on High Impact Practices, for example, found that students who engaged with a project that took more than a semester to complete, had a close-working relationship with a faculty member, and had the opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom to a real world setting were more likely to succeed in college and thrive overall post-graduation. And, according to a 2016 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey, attributes employers most seek in job applicants include: leadership, ability to work in a team, communication, and problem solving skills.

At Earlham, project-based learning (PBL) has long been a part of our pedagogical DNA. Quakers throughout history have worked at the intersections of social concerns and practical action—what we now call “social entrepreneurship.” We go about this work at Earlham today in a spirit of collaboration knowing that solving most complex problems requires multiple perspectives and the creativity that comes from deep listening and purposeful consensus building. The Magic Bus project was successful, we believe, precisely because they were a diverse team from a range of disciplines, incorporating both U.S. and international perspectives. While every campus is different in terms of culture and context, here are several principles important to us at Earlham that could be transferable to other institutions of higher education looking to invest more in PBL.

Keep It Real. For PBL to have an impact and for students to be maximally engaged, projects must connect meaningfully to relevant, significant issues. Too much current project work can be rightfully criticized as trivial and disconnected from social concerns. The Magic Bus project emerged out of the lived experience of two of our students who grew up in Africa and saw the challenges associated with public transportation in urban, high-poverty areas. While it is certainly the case that not every project can work on improving the lives of 10 million people, there are real needs both on-campus and in surrounding communities that can be addressed through PBL. In fact, who is to say that the next transformative social enterprise won’t come from an 18-21 year old? There are plenty of examples of game-changing ideas that came from young adults of this age. We would be wise to give them real work to tackle – or develop meaningful ways to support them when they find this work on their own.

Build It and They Will Come. Students are demanding more project-based pedagogy in higher education. They see the challenges that will define their generation and they want to get to work on them. But often, traditional classroom structures and academic calendars are not set up for this kind of learning. In fact, the Hult Prize student group worked for over a year on their project mostly outside of class and regular academic activity and they did this enthusiastically. While Earlham students arrive expecting to change the world, it takes support and resources to help develop their ideas. Through our recent strategic planning process we established new themed interdisciplinary Centers in Global Health, Entrepreneurship, and Social Justice and created the CoLab– a physical space on campus to support faculty and student collaborative project work on global challenges. This investment is already yielding returns as we see more students involved in projects with global significance. A group this fall, for example, is working on countering violent extremism through social media—a project co-sponsored by Facebook and the US Government.

Integration is Key. Besides encouraging faculty and students to work on real issues and creating the administrative infrastructure to empower their ideas, a final critical element to our success at Earlham can be attributed to how student learning is integrated. The advising team to Magic Bus Ticketing, for example, included both teaching and administrative faculty members from multiple departments and their close mentorship helped the students hone their ideas and develop their winning proposal. The students also benefited from a variety of internship, research, and off-campus study opportunities integrated into their undergraduate experiences. This kind of collaboration and integration takes commitment from across the campus and an openness to think about learning beyond the stand-alone department and the four-walled classroom. While smaller institutions have some advantage in this work, technology and digital platforms are making this kind of integration more feasible and scale-able.

While project-based learning is certainly not a panacea for all the challenges facing higher education today or a one-size-fits-all approach, it is much more than a passing fad. It is a pedagogy for our times—congruent with the new science of learning, technological advancements, and societal needs. Rather than ask students to “wait until you graduate” to work on real issues, we can and should create multiple ways to get them started right away on projects and problems both big and small, local and global. Save the world on your own time? Today’s colleges and universities should be on the forefront of a different message of empowerment to our students: “it’s your time to save the world.”

[1] Fish, S. (2008). Save the World on Your Own Time. New York: Oxford University Press.

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