From Project-Based Learning to Project Challenges: a Shared Investment in the SDGs

In 2015 I began co-leading our study abroad trip to Tanzania, determined to make some tangible impact through our engagement. I loaded my bags with donations and gifts- but that was the easy part. It was the promise of collaboration that beckoned my interest. The idea that as a university, we had valuable resources to offer and perhaps even more to receive.

Since that initial trip, I have been experimenting with Project-Based Learning (PBL), challenging students to “add value” to our global partners through mentored projects. With the development of our Project Portal and digital badges in 2018, we introduced a scalable system for pairing students with community-based organizations (NGOs) around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Students would begin by exploring the SDGs, then work on customized projects culminating in some meaningful contribution, while also supporting their own professional and academic goals.

This approach has yielded exciting results, especially for our students. We have seen transformational benefits related to professional growth, retention, and future plans. Students have leveraged projects for competitive fellowships, graduate school, and job opportunities. Yet for our global partners, impacts have been more modest and uneven. While some have shared project outputs with key communities and stakeholders, collectively, our partners continue to struggle. And although they welcome our ongoing engagement, they are seeking something more impactful. Our model must adapt and change. 

With this context as our guide, we are now working with our NGO partners on “project challenges” that are connected directly with the SDGs and associated targets. Rather than beginning with student interests and then mapping to SDGs and NGO priorities, we are working from the other direction: from SDG targets and metrics, to NGO challenges, to student contributions. And our partners are engaged in the entire process.

Although we are still developing this new approach, we are already seeing benefits. The work of framing and mapping challenges is inherently valuable and empowering. Our partners are contextualizing their own engagement and aligning their missions with emerging priorities for investment and innovation. Meanwhile, our students continue to benefit. Within the space of project challenges, there is ample room for customization and interest-based learning. As long as students respond to requests, they are free to innovate and create.

Perhaps most exciting is the collaboration that is developing. The framing of challenges calls for a shared understanding and belief in the potential of engagement. Rather than simply connecting students with partners for localized projects, we are jointly investing in the promise of Experiential Learning, and the work of harvesting and leveraging outputs toward broader impacts. And by doing the initial framing and assessing work, we can actually follow progress, utilizing digital badges and dynamic assessment to track and build on outcomes. This ability alone represents significant innovation and can transform Experiential Learning and engagement into catalysts for growth and sustainability.

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