The Promise of Project-Based Learning
Benefits may last beyond a single introductory class, especially for female students.
By Ha Nguyen, Lily Wu, Christian Fischer, Gregory Washington, and Mark Warschauer
The majority of first- and second-year engineering students enter their majors with little experience in practically applying science and engineering concepts. This disconnect between theory-based learning in introductory courses and real-world engineering applications may discourage learners from persisting in the major—with serious implications for populations with lower persistence and graduation rates in the field overall, such as African American students, Latino/Hispanic students, and women. Project-based learning (PBL) has shown promise in addressing these challenges, particularly in increasing students’ motivation and reducing attrition. However, studies on the method’s impacts have largely focused on student and instructor perceptions of PBL or immediate effects on performance, rather than future learning outcomes. This prompted us to explore the impact of a project-based introductory engineering course on students’ academic success in subsequent courses. We also examined how the effects varied for students traditionally underrepresented in engineering education, such as female, low-income, first-generation, and racial minority college students.
We used data from 1,318 students who took an elective, introductory project-based course sequence from a large public university in Southern California in 2015–2016 and 2016–2017. Data included students’ demographics, academic preparation, course enrollment, and performance in five subsequent engineering courses. These covered a range of topics, from engineering computations and digital systems to statics.
The PBL course focused on collaborative learning and broad exposure to fundamental engineering skills. Students participated in a full product development cycle—project planning, research and design, prototyping, assessment, and presentation—as they worked on autonomous projects such as a fitness tracker, autonomous delivery quadcopter, and a “lab-on-a-chip” concentration detector.
We used regression analyses to explore (1) enrollment patterns in the project-based course, (2) impact of PBL on performance in several subsequent courses, and (3) differences in effects on student subsamples by gender, family income, high school academic preparedness, underrepresented minority status, English proficiency, and first-generation college status.
Our findings suggest that PBL can support students’ academic pathways in engineering. We found that enrollment in the project-based introductory engineering course did not substantially differ by student demographics. This implies that engineering faculty could frame the course as an exploratory experience of engineering topics, with broad appeal to students with different backgrounds.
Participation in a project-based introductory engineering course was linked to higher student performance in some subsequent engineering courses overall. These results align with prior research finding that PBL may enhance students’ ability to communicate with each other, monitor learning progress, and adjust their own learning. Engineering faculty may therefore integrate PBL elements early on in the undergraduate program, laying the foundation for subsequent course success. In particular, we found substantial positive benefits for female students. Prior research has shown that female students tend to gravitate towards courses with student-focused and collaborative learning.
Finally, we did not find adverse effects of participating in the project-based introductory course on students who were generally underrepresented in engineering (e.g., low-income and first-generation students, or those with weaker academic readiness). However, we observed larger benefits for their counterparts (e.g., not low-income, not first-generation, or those with higher academic readiness). It remains crucial to explore ways to support instruction that is conducive to learning for all students. For example, faculty could apply a two-step process that first introduces students to technical concepts and procedures before moving to PBL design components. For courses with collaborative learning components, instructors should also attend to the quality of participation at both the individual and group levels to foster equal participation and interdependence.
Overall, our research suggests that project-based introductory engineering courses can benefit students pursuing engineering majors, particularly female students. The method could contribute to increased persistence and graduation rates of women in undergraduate engineering programs. Further inquiry could examine the effects of different PBL designs and practices on populations, such as students traditionally underrepresented in engineering education, throughout their academic careers, to further support equity in engineering education.
Ha Nguyen is a Ph.D. student in STEM teaching and learning at the University of California–Irvine; Lily Wu is the director of academic innovation, programs, at the university’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering. Christian Fischer is an assistant professor of educational effectiveness at the Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology, Eberhard Karls University of Tübinger. Gregory Washington is the Stacey Nicholas Dean of Engineering at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, University of California–Irvine; Mark Warschauer is a professor of education and informatics at the university. This article is adapted from “Increasing Success in College: Examining the Impact of a Project-Based Introductory Engineering Course” in the July 2020 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.