Thinking Outside the Bubble: Project-Based Learning in the 21st Century (Stanford+Connects)

Everybody wants to know why Stanford is now the most sought-after university in America, arguably in the world, with a record-low 5.1% acceptance rate for this year’s class of 18, but nobody’s asking the students themselves if they actually find what they’re looking for. And here’s what I would say. Yes, we find perfect weather, beautiful campus, great football team, all those things. But to be completely honest, many of us don’t find a perfect education. It’s actually a little bit disappointing until that magical moment when I think many of realize in our own way that the point is not to receive a great education, but to create our own for the unique challenges that await our generation in a world that’s more globalized, complex, and interdependent than ever before. And so I think what really makes Stanford the most sought-after higher education is that students have sought out to redefine higher education for the 21st century, to make it more interdisciplinary, hands-on, and real-world. And the real world is noticing the results.

I’ll give you three examples from my own experience in the building industry. For me the magical moment was in a project called the AEC Global Teamwork Project, where students from universities all around the world form interdisciplinary teams to tackle comprehensive building designs. Here’s my team, two continents, three time zones. What did we learn? None of us could do it alone. Not even our professions could do it alone. The industry is full of silos, and a fragmented process. Instead we have the idea of integrated project delivery, where you bring all disciplines on at the conceptual phase of design so that the kinks all get worked out ahead of time, for ultimately higher value for the client. This is exactly the learning environment we were in, that was my discovery of interdisciplinary. And I think what also made our team so successful was that for us it wasn’t a classroom assignment, it was training for our futures. We could actually innovate in our field through our experimentation with new virtual reality environments and building information modeling and cloud-based tools. And that was my magical moment because from that point on I realized I was no longer a student — I was my own teacher. And I didn’t have to wait to get into industry to change it.

Once I understood the importance of interdisciplinary and project-based learning, I craved the hands-on. So a group of us students sought out an experience of a lifetime, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. For the next two years I led a team to design and build a 1,000 sqft net-zero house that we transported to southern California to compete against nineteen other teams. We ended up winning first-place for Affordability and fifth-place overall, and the house is now back at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve where it will remain a residence for visiting scholars and researchers. This is what students do at Stanford.

Next was real-world. When I stopped in Slovenia during my eight-month-long Eurotrip this year, I connected with many of my friends from the Global Teamwork Project, and since then some of us have started a practice together called Cloud Architecture, and it’s our vision for the future of global architectural studio. One of the first projects we’ve organized is Global Urban Development Program, which is an academic project like the one we had done together, except earlier in the phase of a building project looking at development, urban design, and all the economic, political, social factors that are involved. We’re tackling a real-world challenge from my colleague and friend Michael Tubbs, Councilmember of District 6 in Stockton, CA.

Like I said, to each his or her own education at Stanford — and mine has only just begun.

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