Tom Ewing, professor in the Department of History and the associate dean for graduate studies and research for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Robin Ott, associate professor of practice in mechanical engineering for the College of Engineering, have earned the 2021 Project-Based Learning Award from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL).

The Project-Based Learning Award, presented every three years, is given to those who effectively implement project-based learning at the course level or a faculty team implementing across courses. The award is designed to recognize faculty, or teams of faculty, who have incorporated project-based learning pedagogy, demonstrating a positive impact on student learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a flexible teaching strategy that supports faculty working to scaffold students through appropriate expectations for their level of development, interests, and goals. PBL can take many forms, but ultimately students are engaged in the exploration of authentic problems as a method of both learning and applying content knowledge to meet course outcomes.

Ewing said that project-based learning is central to his teaching and his approach to helping students work collaboratively in groups to define research questions, identify relevant materials, analyze content, and report on their results.

“My teaching philosophy is embedded in and exhibited through my practices,” said Ewing. “I see students as collaborators on projects that require them to identify research questions, engage with varied types of evidence, find creative solutions to problems, and progress toward outcomes that contribute new knowledge. I see project-based learning as an opportunity to bring students into dialogue with experts in the field, with organizations committed to addressing related issues, and with members of the broader public.

“Finally, I see project-based learning as a source of inspiration for my own research projects, as my collaboration with students has led to peer review journal articles, research grants, and outreach opportunities.”

Ewing’s current research project explores the transmission of information about the so-called “Russian Influenza” (1889-1890) using data and digital humanities approaches to medical history. At Virginia Tech, he coordinates the Data in Social Context Program, which sustains an interdisciplinary approach of data analytics, computational skills, and critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences. He has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to run workshops on the 1918 Spanish Influenza and on Images and Texts in Medical History.

Through her 20 years of industry experience, Ott understands, perhaps better than most, that students benefit significantly from their interactions with engineers in the field. “While the mechanical engineering department was effectively implementing project-based learning before it was even a trend in education, what they were missing was the connection with real-world projects, sponsored by industry partners,” said Ott. “This was a gap I knew I could fill that also supported my pedagogical intention of having students learn from engineers working in the field, not just career academics.”

Ott said her goal in project-based learning and as a teacher is to eliminate two themes that plagued her during her education. First, she strives to foster an environment where all students feel welcome, especially those from underrepresented groups. Second, and most central to her pedagogy, is designing courses around open-ended, project-based problem solving.

“My lectures often include specific examples from my time in industry, which I see as a way to provide students with real-life work examples, helping to keep them engaged,” said Ott.

“What I love most about teaching is the opportunity to form personal connections with students, both when helping them learn new information and by showing them their own potential for success,” Ott said. “Doing this with industry sponsored project-based learning is, in my opinion, the best wait to serve my students in their educational journey and future careers.”

As recipients of the 2021 Project-Based Learning Award, Ewing and Ott each received a $500 award, a plaque, and up to $2,000 to cover travel and/or registration at one conference to present their project-based learning work. All nominees submitted a statement of their project-based learning approach, a statement of their teaching philosophy, highlighting the integration of a project-based learning pedagogy, and supporting materials such as a collection of student work, course artifacts, media coverage of student experience, or statement of support from a project support partner.

For more information on the Project-Based Learning Award and additional criteria, visit the CETL website.

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