Problem Driven Learning and Teaching LaboratoryProblem Driven Learning and Teaching LaboratoryProblem Driven Learning and Teaching Laboratory

About Problem Driven Learning

Problem-driven Learning (PDL) is an educational approach designed to help students learn content and develop important reasoning skills as they solve authentic problems in their discipline. While problem-solving is a commonplace activity in any engineering course, what makes PDL as an educational approach unique in engineering education is the kinds of problems the students tackle, the learning goals and the support system in place to help them achieve those goals. In a full-blown PDL curriculum, the problems are so complex and require so many types of knowledge that a single student would be hopelessly out of her depth in trying to solve one. Teams are required to meet the problems demands and in these teams students develop new understandings of collaboration, distributed cognition and points of view. These authentic problems anchor instruction and learning while affording free inquiry and self-directed exploration.

The PDL groups are comprised of seven to nine students and learning is student-centered the directions the students take, the solution they reach is determined by the group. The instructor in PDL is a facilitator, whose primary role is to facilitate learning by asking questions and encouraging in-depth probing, rather than presenting facts or information in a didactic manner. The facilitator supports the group at the process level not the content level. Another form of support is room where white boards are divided and deployed in such as way as to scaffold specific reasoning strategies essential to engineering. Grids are developed during class that support students in developing a visual database of facts they are uncovering from their inquiry, hypotheses/models they are deriving as their understanding grows, assumptions they make as they close the problem space and inquiry needed to go forward. In each session, which lasts for an hour and a half, students present findings from their individual out-of-class inquiry, apply the findings to the problem and identify new areas of inquiry for the next session. This is done using the white boards. Individual students take on teaching responsibilities as they bring new information back to their group and explain its relevance to the problem. The goals of PDL are to develop students' critical thinking and reasoning skills and to help them become self-directed learners who are eventually independent of their instructors. This results in students who are capable of adaptation, creativity, and are responsible for life-long learning.

Problem-driven learning is particularly well-suited to the field of biomedical engineering where the multidisciplinary nature of the field demands that students develop multidisciplinary skills and knowledge. They need the modeling and quantitative skills of traditional engineers, but they also need the systems understanding representative of a more biological approach. In short, they need to be fully conversant in two intellectual traditions that are in some ways at odds with one another. When they work to solve a current problem in the field, they learn to integrate the methods and knowledge from these two fields towards reaching a problem solution. For this reason, we find that PDL provides a learning environment that truly fosters integration and interdisciplinary thinking.