The impact of problem-based learning in interdisciplinary graduate studies: Some thought-provoking appreciations II

The potential impact of problem-based learning (PBL) in interdisciplinary graduate studies is indicated by these statements written as part of the student evaluations of the 2011 offering of a PBL course on “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology” [GRST].  The statements are included here not primarily to boast about the course but rather to stimulate thinking about what might aim to be doing when we teach graduate students. (See also 2009 statements.)

• The GRST course provides an entry into the complexities of science and technology as they interact with society (in the context of gender, race, class, etc.) while immersing and introducing students in the PBL pedagogical framework. The course provides a supportive environment in which to identify personal strengths and weaknesses and develop personally and professionally. It also stimulates interest, development of projects, and multidisciplinary exploration and collaboration, taking all participants as equals with something valuable to contribute. Build-in feedback mechanisms and dialogue processes provide a means for tremendous support and opening intellectual avenues while allowing all voices to be heard.
• For someone who wants a break from lectures and wants real collaborative feedback, this course is great. It wasn’t always clear how “structured” or “free-style” the professors envisioned students’ projects or comments to be, but overall this was a great course where I leaned a lot about the process of research and what it means to research the barriers surrounding scientific knowledge based on race, gender, class, expertise, etc. It‘s also a great opportunity to think critically about the intersections between scholarship and activism.
• The opportunity to engage: 1. With students from a variety of disciplines; 2. With material outside of my own discipline; 3. In ways not explicitly encouraged by my discipline. All this allowed me to broaden my horizons, but in regards to my relationship with my own discipline and in regards to my perspectives about race and gender.
• This course is about learning how to learn. It allowed me to take my personal interests and connections to each individual case and develop my own line of inquiry. If I got stuck, someone was there to help me. Particularly for someone who has novice knowledge of STS, this course provided a safe space for me to ask questions and develop my won thoughts about how I interact with STS.
• This course is a gift – the chance to be open – open-ended in design, open to process, open to other perspectives, open to changing your ideas, and open to sharing. Of course this means it’s risky too – you won’t always know when you’re coming from or where you are going – you might think you aren’t sufficiently grounded by the course. But you have the freedom to change that – and being on the other side of it now, I see it works out beautifully. The attention to process provides you the tools to grow and by the end you’re riding the wave of your earlier work – just choose an area of science and/or feminist/anti-racist criticism and run with it.
• I learned so much from this course. It allowed me to build projects and presentations based on my own interests, which eventually led to a topic I will likely write my Master’s Thesis on. One of the strong points of this class is that it really helps you articulate what you’re interested in, if you don’t already know. I also liked the group dynamic. All the students respected and supported each other, and had so much to offer to one another. I’m a fairly shy person, but I usually felt comfortable in this class. And, Peter and Sally are wonderful, helpful people. One thing I think should be stated more clearly to students before they take this class is that it is a PBL class and that it will be very different from their other courses. It requires A LOT of work, not a whole lot of structure, and many presentations. They should be comfortable with these aspects before committing to take this course.
• This course has provided me with the opportunity to become a critical thinker, which is a life skill. I believe strongly that this course has not only made me a better academic investigator, but a stronger contributor to classroom discussions. In addition, I have gained the opportunity about how to use other disciplines in my research.
• This course is NOT a traditional course and students who are looking for book learning should approach with caution. With that said, everyone should take this course. I would like to hear more about the teacher’s experience and perhaps research ideas.
• This course was very enlightening in its approach. It encourages the students to take the initiative in their own development, but offers a supportive environment where the student is guided by the professors.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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