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Project-based learning in applied plant sciences (ESCAPAdE project)

Project-based learning in applied plant sciences (ESCAPAdE project)

We currently use Project-based Learning within a course entitled “Designing New Crops for the Future”, open to Erasmus students in Montpellier SupAgro.  The objective for students from diverse backgrounds is to get operational insight in plant sciences and discover the thinking mode of a scientific staff  working  in plant breeding and crop protection. The product is a 12 pages document presenting a prospective strategy for developing an innovative cultivar, or cropping system, or protection system adapted to challenges of the coming years.

Project-based learning is an active pedagogy, also known as experiential learning.

The student is an actor, building its knowledge through experience within a prospective or fictive project (the development of a new cultivar, cropping system or integrated crop protection system consistent with global changes, natural resource management and innovative or traditional cropping systems).

The teacher is a facilitator, motivator and an evaluator, comforting students within the scientific domain of plant sciences, planning out pedagogic evaluations,  scheduling learning activities, interacting with scientific experts and involving them in in the learning process.

The research expert act as a mentor, facilitating the project-based approach, guiding the scientific development of the project through its expertise on the subject (crop production, cultivar development, protection system, biocontrol…), stimulating student’s motivation, evaluating the scientific relevance of the project with teachers.

The project includes some scientific knowledge to be learned, assimilated and reused by students, and includes a specific problem to be solved through a careful planning and project execution. Personal and group guidance is applied to solve any challenge arising during the project.

Project-based learning in applied plant sciences (ESCAPAdE project)

Resources produced as a result of a project: Escapade

Group size : Small group (4-5 persons)

Modality : Presential

Duration of the teaching method : Education or training unit

Special equipment : small meeting areas, flipcharts, collaborative writing tools, tutorials and guidelines

Type of knowledge developed : Knowledge, Know-how, Social skills

Target Audience : Students, Professionals in training, Particularly suitable for heterogeneous groups, Particularly suitable for groups with cultural heterogeneity

Course Type : Tutorials (TD), Course, Practical work (TP)

Preparation time :three weeks

Author and persons who made changes : Dominique This (assistant professor), Florian Fort (assistant professor), Isabel Martin Grande (pedagogic engineer)

Keywords :

Why am I using this technique?

For my learners...

The tangible and concrete dimension of the project, with real-world connections, has a strong motivating effect for learners. They can connect and mobilize multidisciplinary academic knowledge while meeting and interacting  with teachers and professionals in a friendly and non-hierarchical atmosphere.

Students with different academic and cultural backgrounds benefit from individual capacities and can pool individual experiences and know-how during their group work. They acquire new communication, collaboration skills and adaptability .

The project involves self-monitoring of its progress, a careful planning and some autonomy of the students. Students are accountable for their own project.

The particular subject of this course (designing new crops for the future) also develops creativity of the students, trying to find sustainable solutions for a challenging future of agriculture.

For me, teacher or trainer...

Improving motivation of students is a challenging goal in pedagogy. This facilitates classroom attendance and commitment of the learners.

By mobilizing specific concepts  acquired during lectures to a concrete case, students can anchor more strongly knowledge and know-how for their future, which is highly satisfactory for a teacher.   

Interpersonal relations with the students and research colleagues are totally different than the possibilities offered by regular lectures. I feel more like a facilitator and an animator, providing guidance, setting goals and tracking progresses rather than delivering knowledge.

As a researcher, I can share my knowledge on a particular production system, a crop or a crop protection system. I can also share my enthusiasm for plant sciences  and identify future candidate for internships or jobs. I am also building strong partnerships with higher education staff.

Framework and steps / Instructions

The framework

The teaching sequence is conceived over four weeks, each week presenting a different item, moving the project forward; In our case:

- Analyzing and predicting the effect of global changes on cropping systems and agriculture,

- Defining crop ideotypes or protection systems adapted to constraints and innovative cropping systems,

- Finding relevant methods to reach this ideal type,

- Thinking about societal and legislative challenges to be encountered.

Each project is supported by a research expert and piloted by academic staff. Some examples of projects conducted during this course are:

- “Breeding transplanted sorghum for waterlogged conditions in the extreme north of Cameroon: a participatory plant breeding approach” (by John Barth, Pauline Depoorter, Paul Duneaux and Princia Nakombo, mentored by Abdouo Aziz Saidou, CIRAD)

- “Integrated management of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug in European Hazelnut Orchards”, by Julia Wen, Kelvin Sage, Matheus Montrazi, Quentin Mayer, mentored by Claude Bon, USDA)

The whole course is given in English, in order to increase its international dimension. Few students and teachers are native-English speakers, therefore a minimal B1 level and clear goodwill are requested. English course are embedded within this teaching sequence, helping students encountering difficulties with the written and oral presentations.

The preparation

Volunteer researchers need to be identified well in advance. Their number depend on the class size (no more than 4 students per project is is suitable). Availability of all pedagogic staff needs also to be checked well in advance, because of the tight schedule and precise timing of the teaching session.

Tutors need to be prepared in advance to this particular teaching activity. During a two-hours meeting, the process of project-based learning is presented, and proper attitude is discussed with them through lively activities (we want to avoid over-mentoring or over-specified projects). A last briefing of the whole pedagogic team before the course start will ensure commitment of all people.

A modular room needs to be booked for the total duration of the course (including a coffee corner…).

Specific learning material (on-line resources, student booklet, evaluation grids, progress reports model, report model, collaborative writing space) need to be prepared or updated.

The process

Because students do not know each other, an initial ice-breaker (1hour) is organized just after the initial presentation and guidelines of the course. This allows everyone to meet and initiate communication in English. Research experts then present their competences and some ideas about the project framework  (10 minutes may be sufficient for that), allowing students to choose their group as much as possible, based on their professional and personal objectives.

No more than 12 hours of lectures / visits / practical activities are given every week (in relation with the item of the week), prioritizing students’ groups workshops. We ask students to write at least three “learning points” after each lecture (to be collected each week). Short innovative teaching activities are proposed each Friday in order to remobilize academic lessons.

After discussing and defining their project, students will conduct it autonomously and deliver their product (a 12-pages report and an oral presentation) only at the very end of the course. Anyway, they are encouraged to start writing parts of their project related to each item regularly.

Each Friday, the group meets its project tutor for a debriefing time and update of the project, but other contacts through Email or visits are encouraged. Before this weekly meeting, the group write a progress report and send it to the tutor and academic supervisor.

At each time, the academic staff is present in the classroom in order to answer to any scientific / organizational question that may arise. A coffee break is highly appreciated during this Friday morning session.

Evaluation

A written report and oral defense of the project  (in front of the classmates, teachers and tutors) are used to evaluate knowledge acquisition.

An evaluation grid is provided, with an emphasis on

- project management (methodology and functioning of the group),

- quality of the students’ proposal (an accurate, operational and satisfactory answer in relation to the objectives; students’ creative force and critical mind), 

- quality of the presentation (a structured, logical, synthetic and complete written report; a clear speech; a judicious  selection of features exposed and relevant and accurate answers to the questions).

The whole group is accountable for this product, but in some cases a modulation of marks will be proposed, in order to acknowledge an outstanding student’s behavior or endorse the lack of involvement of a particular student. In addition the group functioning is subject to self-evaluation and to the tutors’ evaluation.

A satisfaction survey is conducted on-line at the end of the course.

Variants

A variant could be considered to take into account the lack of local academic competences (on-line material instead of lectures, regular chats with students of the academic supervisor), or lack of research specialists locally (video-meetings).

Points of vigilance

This pedagogic method involves a higher commitment  of students all along the course period. It also implies a strong involvement of the academic leader and trustworthy relationship between all actors. No student should be left alone and the teacher should take specific care of group management. The low English level of some students can also be a threat. A B2 level would be more appropriate.

What if it doesn't work?

Communication and kindness can solve many issues.


Testimonials

Users Testimonials :

This course is my favorite one. I enjoy the gentle interaction with students from all around the world and with my colleagues from Agropolis research community.

The subject (dealing with the future of Agriculture) and the concept of multidisciplinary brainstorming, although not going too far into scientific content, is initiating further in depth developments at the M2 level, while improving professional and personal skills of students.

Dominique This (assistant professor)

Learners Testimonials :

“This course open my mind about concepts, technique, and regulation to design new crop”

“New updated experiments and articles gives us a great view for what we are facing and will be face in the future”

“My favorite moment: Working on the project and feeling independent for exploring the subject, giving my own perspectives and choosing the approach with my team.”

“I learnt a lot of things on plant breeding and genetics and improved a lot in group working”

Learner :

The tangible and concrete dimension of the project, with real-world connections, has a strong motivating effect for learners. They can connect and mobilize multidisciplinary academic knowledge while meeting and interacting  with teachers and professionals in a friendly and non-hierarchical atmosphere.

Students with different academic and cultural backgrounds benefit from individual capacities and can pool individual experiences and know-how during their group work. They acquire new communication, collaboration skills and adaptability .

The project involves self-monitoring of its progress, a careful planning and some autonomy of the students. Students are accountable for their own project.

The particular subject of this course (designing new crops for the future) also develops creativity of the students, trying to find sustainable solutions for a challenging future of agriculture.

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