Project-Based Education & Ohio State University

March 21, 2013 by John Andrew Williams

Excitement over Project-Based Education

Last Friday I was so excited to find an article in the Scientific American about an electric car that grad and undergrad students at Ohio State University are designing to break the 400.

The exciting part: the curriculum and learning was project-based, focused on solving a challenge. In order to succeed, the students were guided by the requirements of the challenge, not a predetermined curricula.

Some context for Knowledge vs. Project Based Education

Most traditional school programs are designed based on predetermined curricula. Most classes are intended to solve problems that we already know the answers to. For example, in calculus class, the teacher already knows the answer to the equation presented to students. This method of teaching makes some sense: students need to know the basic building blocks of knowledge.

But it leads to an important debate, especially around the Common Core standards and high school education. I think articles like the one that Janet Coffey and Bruce Alberts wrote in Science for “Improving Education Standards” argue for the need to allow students to go deeper into a few areas rather than attempt to simply address a wide array of tasks and abilities. Think studying for an SAT test (wide breadth of knowledge) versus engaging in a science fair project (focused depth in one area).

I believe students need to do more projects like you would find at a science fair and trust that all the needed skills and abilities will be acquired and exercised.

For example, the students working on the electric car have incredible job opportunities open up to them. Even as undergraduates, their education is incredibly focused on one challenging and exciting project. Of course, they had to pass calculus and other classes to prepare them for this project, but I would argue that somewhere along the line their education was also balanced by an excitement and love for discovery through projects.

Utter Disappointment and Shock at Ohio State and its Engineering Department

Intrigued by the article, I was visiting the “Buckeye Bullet” website. (The Buckeye Bullet is the name of the car.) It looked awesome. The graphics were great.

Then I clicked on the link for the team. Of the 14 people working on the project, 13 were men and only one was a woman. And her job wasn’t even engineering. She was the graphic designer.

You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding.

That’s 100% male engineers working on one of the coolest projects I’ve seen open to undergraduates. And those undergraduates are getting awesome job opportunities. Is this a coincidence or does this happen all of the time?

I studied Classics in college. I remember a story that one of my professors shared about how the American Classical Journal decided that the editorial board should try evaluating articles without the author’s name on the submission. The idea was to make the process of submitting articles for inclusion in the Journal gender-blind.

The results were embarrassing. Previously, 10% of the Journal’s articles were by women. Gender-blind, that number quadrupled, and continued to hover between 40 and 50% in subsequent editions.


I usually do not wade into the gender debate in education, but when I looked at the website today, my excitement was dashed.

As a father of two young girls, 5 and 3, I see their potential to be power-houses in any career and life they choose. I see the conditioning they face when they look at how women are portrayed in society. Fortunately, I also see a shift in our culture, awareness of the gender-gap, and significant action to address inequity. I also see pockets that simply are still impervious and haven’t caught up.

Oh, and by the way, how many women won Oscars for the technical jobs in making movies? That’s right, very few.

Also read: No Means Think Bigger - The 3 Kinds of Setbacks and How to Respond

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