PBL IS in Higher Education

I am a student in higher education at the

Project Based Learning, PBL, Project-Based Learning

and we do Project-Based Learning. One of the most experiential projects we worked on involved using a carefully-constructed communication technique on a group of autistic individuals. During this project, which we called Structured Learning Experience (SLE), we were able to employ a critical thinking process that helped with our communication technique. This critical thinking process, as described by the Buck Institute for Education, includes four key phases.


In phase one, the project is launched and inquiry begins with the analysis of key questions. In our project, the road that led to our Driving Question was quite simple. We needed to propose a project wherein we could carry out an SLE in a specific community. The project needed to be something close to our hearts, so that our passion would be reflected in our work. We started by making a list of possible beneficiaries. Some of those included were student organizations, flower-vendor children, a community of senior-citizen fishermen, and elementary-level, public-school children. In the end, we chose a small autism resource center in the outskirts of the town.

The Autism Training Facility (ATF) was hidden away in the furthest corners of Laguna, and unfortunately, it was not well-known, even to the locals. However, it was for that very reason that we chose it. Being in a Research University and part of a hands-on, development-oriented degree, it was common to find that surrounding communities were already saturated by the hundreds of students who work with them every year. We believed that working with them would require genuine effort and participation, instead of consulting people and data from previous projects.

During our class, Communication in Development, our professor asked us why we chose who we chose. We said it was because nobody paid them enough attention. Then he asked us what kind of attention we planned to give them, and I said, I don’t know, but maybe we could start by asking them their stories. He looked at me and said, “They don’t speak words.” I replied, “It doesn’t mean they have nothing to say.”

While I felt he was being rather insensitive, it turned out that my professor was just engaging me to think outside the box. It was true that most of the trainees (which was how the autistic individuals are addressed) did not speak words. However, this was where the challenge lay. He continued by asking us what we could offer them, and our group knew that the trainees needed a learning environment. Their stagnant condition was only made worse by the limited resources of the facility. By putting two and two together, we had an exhaustive discussion from which our Driving Question emerged: “How do we effectively communicate with the trainees in order to create a continuous learning environment for them?”


This phase entailed working on data gathering and information evaluation. To begin, all of our focus was centered on the Driving Question. Our main goal was to produce a communication system that would benefit their educational setbacks. However, in order to achieve that goal, we knew we had to set subtasks and meet secondary-level goals. That could only be done by getting to know our beneficiaries first.

Our initial meeting with the handlers required maximum attendance from both parties so that we could all get acquainted. We asked basic questions about the trainees’ profiles, their daily schedules, their behavior toward strangers, and their hobbies. Afterward, we met with the trainees. They were very sweet, and if you were shy, you’d have probably been alarmed at how warm they were. They didn’t adhere with the norms of proxemics and personal space, but only because they didn’t know much about it.

We observed how they interacted with one another, especially after having been in the facility (free of charge) for at least five years. These trainees still lived with their families, but came to the facility every day to exercise mental and physical procedures with in-house trainers.

The interviews helped us in getting to know more about the facility and the people in it, as well as direct us to things we needed to know to answer our Driving Question. According to the Buck Institute’s rubric, we had to “integrate relevant and sufficient information to address the Driving Question”, which we were able to address by interviewing other individuals that they interacted with first-hand. With this, we lay down our groundwork and discussed our objectives:

For us students:

1. To learn two things about the trainee’s childhood and share with them two things about ours (this was to find out if we were getting through to them and vice versa)

2. To come up with material products that would signify the the effectivity of the communication system

3. To create a report that would suggest how to promote sustainability

For the handlers/facility management:

1. To create a new daily schedule that would support the proposed project

2. To suggest follow-through activities that would enhance the product of our proposed project

3. To get weekly reports from parents/guardians on the trainee’s development regarding the proposed project

For the trainees:

1. To effectively convey their thoughts through non-verbal cues or body language

2. To take on a hobby and turn it into a long-term project

These objectives were carefully constructed in order to meet our main goal and later answer our Driving Question.

After setting the objectives, we began to probe more carefully during our frequent visits to the facility. We were taught different techniques about interpersonal communication during our class, so we were able to practice them in the field. Our group members made rotational weekly visits so that the members could get to know each of us better. Luckily, the trainees’ parents were there daily and helped us interpret what their children were trying to say.


By this time, we were instructed to develop the project’s design, so we discussed our objectives along with the information we had gathered. We decided to make use of the trainee’s hobbies and turn it into a “sustainable enterprise” for them and their family.

Most of the parents involved in the program retired early from their careers so that the could put more focus on their children’s needs. This posed a problem to some of them, especially for those who had a difficult time making ends meet. Our proposal included taking a trainee’s hobbies/strengths and turning it into an income-generating practice. It wouldn't be much, but hopefully, it would be enough. The parents’ role was to constantly engage the trainees and create a healthy and engaging environment for them at home. The handlers were to do the same at the ATF. The group members were assigned to a specific trainee and would spend a few days in deep conversation (particularly non-verbal, with the interpretation of the parents and handlers) so that we could really determine what hobby they were attached to. We would then later work with the parents and handlers for the specifics such as production schedules, and suppliers. Afterward, our main activity, which was our answer to our driving question, was to hold an enterprise seminar where we would exhibit the trainee’s products. Furthermore, to make the project long-term, we planned to invite sales and marketing specialists who were willing to work with the trainees with no initial fee.

Task delegations were assigned according to skill sets, so that we could get the best possible output. We created checklists according to priorities and then followed it religiously. Our professors, who continuously tried to elicit critical thinking, became less involved during project design so we could develop the procedures on our own. Afterward, they helped us tweak and improve our design. Adhering to the Buck Institute rubric, we revised our designs up to three times to make sure we achieved the full potential of our project.

The proposal had to be approved by a board of hand-picked advisers because we were dealing with individuals with sensitive conditions.


After the proposal was approved, we transformed our ideas into actions. We had three weeks until the seminar, which was scheduled right on World Autism Awareness Day. We spent the first week getting to know the handlers and the trainers in order to fully understand the details of each individual’s project. During the next two weeks, we worked one-on-one with our assigned trainees to see how we could develop the project further.

My trainee was named Frank. Frank was a 25-year old wood carver whose parents shared the same profession. His father was a devout Catholic, which is why he produced wooden statues of Saints for churches. Frank on the other hand had a passion for automobiles. He made wooden car models with intense detail and sleek designs. Another trainee at the facility, 19-year-old Ray, had a green thumb. He grew herbs and flowers in his backyard. Charlie was a 22-year-old boy who made trinkets out of recycled materials.

Every day, we spent at least three hours at the facility. We talked with them, we ate with them, we worked with them. We learned how they interacted with one another, and with us. Luckily for me, Frank was very articulate. There were times he would stumble on his words because he thought faster than he could speak. But overall, he could easily convey his thoughts. Julian, a 28-year-old painter, spoke in sounds. He had no words to share, which made it more difficult for our groupmate. However, he had very beautiful paintings, and we felt as if it was his personal way of communicating.

On the day of the seminar, the trainees prepared products of their enterprise that they could sell. We invited students and teachers from our University to attend the seminar, and with proper publicity schemes, a whopping 128 people showed up at the tiny function hall! We hung up what we called a “Freedom Wall”, where visitors could write whatever they liked as long as it was related to the people, the purpose, or the activity.

As the visitors made their rounds, they were astounded to see the talent that was showcased that day. The trainees were especially energetic because big crowds excited them, and their parents stood close by to chat with the sales and marketing agents who were there that day.

Frank was able to meet with an agent who had a contact at a local automobile company. They wanted to hire him to turn his exquisite pieces into keychains of the company’s cars. Julian was able to land himself a contract to paint murals at a school that was being built a couple of towns away. Ray was set up with a local restaurant where has was asked to provide fresh herbs each week. Today, he also has a sideline job of arranging flowers for special occasions.

The following week, we facilitated what we called “Open Space”, a sit-down, round-table discussion where we carefully assessed the trainees’ performance since the activity. The Open Space activity was mainly for the parents and handlers, but we invited Frank, Will, and Jake to join us since they knew how to share their thoughts without difficulty. We learned from Julian’s parents that ever since he began painting regularly again, his moods became far less unpredictable, and he was easier to work with. Frank admitted that he had never done small car models before, and the challenge drove him to be more creative. Lisa, one of the handlers present at the Open Space also shared how the success of some of the trainees became inspiring to the others. They had even already begun creating a basic speech education module for the less articulate trainees, and were also working on other follow-through projects for them.

The rubric by the Buck Institute for Education discussed how Phase 4 trains the mind to clearly encapsulate our understanding of the project and how its principles can apply to other scenarios. In our case, I found that the key to Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Structured Learning Experiences (SLE) is to be a good communicator. If there's anything I've learned from the SLE, communication does not require words. This is a good thing to remember when we try to do background checks and data gathering. Sometimes, in fear of being judged or by simply being cautious, we can find that the things some say coincide with their body language or nonverbal cues. The real challenge is knowing the right approach to elicit the answers you need. Not everyone responds the same way, so asking questions should also be done with lots of thought and precision.


We started out with the Driving Question, “How do we effectively communicate with the trainees in order to create a continuous learning environment for them?” After employing critical thinking and executing a well-designed project, we came up with the answer: “Through continuous practice of participatory communication for development.”

Participatory Communication engages the stakeholders and beneficiaries to work together in achieving development. A project can only be successful if both parties involved can come to a consensus. Three weeks was a short time to get to know the trainees, especially since we had two barriers to overcome: the stranger barrier, which occurred every time we met someone new, and the condition barrier, which was autism and non-verbal language. However, we made it past the barriers and were able to communicate with them much easier once we learned how to interact with them properly. In fact, I found it quite ironic that some felt sorry for people with this condition, when in fact, they often have more to offer than the rest of us.

Good project outcomes require a good process. Approaching each phase of a project through the lens of a process for critical thinking helps us achieve more in the end. In our case, taking it phase by phase allowed us to plan our project better. With good planning came a better overall design. And by following recommendations on the rubric such as asking follow-up questions to arrive at the Driving Question, or critically evaluating processes when developing ideas and products, we became more careful about creating loopholes and overlooking details. Critical thinking also helped us understand the implications of any action we were to take. In order to truly learn during a project-based learning activity, we realized we had to think out of the box. That mentality showed us that it was healthy to overcome conformity and look past what’s just in front of us.

As we created reports and looked back at the activity, we knew that despite helping the trainees, it was us who needed to be thankful, because it not only taught us about critical thinking and participatory communication, but about humanity and sensitivity as well.

Want to dive deeper? Visit our PBL Consulting Services Page to learn more about our immersive workshop on Project Based Learning.

See additional examples of educator created Project Based Learning Units on our PBL Sample Project Resource Page.

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