Project-Based Learning in a Physiology Course

What is Project-Based Learning?

Solving jigsaw puzzle by ePublicist on FlickrAccording to Edutopia, “project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.” Likewise, the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) defines project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge”.  BIE lists a number of essential project design elements for Gold Standard Project-Based Learning:

  • Key knowledge, understanding, and success skills
  • Challenging problem or question
  • Sustained inquiry
  • Authenticity
  • Student voice and choice
  • Reflection
  • Critique and revision
  • Public product

How I use Project-Based Learning

While my use of project-based learning with my students in human physiology does not fully meet the Gold Standard, my experience and that of my students have been interesting and fun. In 2010, I designed and implemented a new team-based, student-centered learning course for pre-professional upper-level undergraduate students entitled Advanced Human Physiology (PHGY 420).  The course was an elective course that assumed students had been successful in at least one pre-requisite physiology course. Subsequently, when the new medical biology major was approved and in-place at our university, incoming students in PHGY 420 were required to complete one of three upper-level physiology courses offered by the biology department prior to enrollment in PHGY 420 (Comparative Physiology BIOL 428, Environmental Physiology of Animals BIOL 433, or Mammalian Physiology BIOL 456).

PHGY 420 concentrates on more in-depth learning in cardiovascular, renal, and respiratory physiology and pathophysiology using human experiments and case studies (PowerLab pre-medical laboratories by ADInstruments), other problem and/or case studies, open-resource take-home essay exams, and team projects.  All of these components represent the aspects designed to make the course as student-centered as possible so students may learn physiological concepts and their involvement in diseases by doing instead of by memorizing.

Since the course began in 2010, the class has been taught annually with an enrollment ranging from 2 (before it became a requirement) to 40 (now that the medical biology majors are juniors and seniors).  For the team projects, students are offered the opportunity to choose what they would like to investigate and how they would like to present their learning to their peers. Often, if someone on the team has a family member with a disease/condition relating to the system being studied, they will convince the others to help them investigate a representative case of that disease/condition.

Students are very creative in choosing their team projects for the three systems in the course.  A sampling of the variety of projects that have been carried out in the course includes several categories:  cases, problems, informational brochures, demonstrations, teaching modules for their classmates, games, etc. More specific examples of team-selected projects are listed below:

Kinesthetic activities:

  • Demonstrations of normal lung functions with balloons
  • Demonstrations of abnormal lung functions with balloons

Educational activities:

  • Brochure about the hazards of second-hand smoking (shared with the Office of Student Life)
  • Brochure for parents of children with asthma (for clinic waiting rooms)
  • Presentation on why kidney damage occurs in diabetes mellitus and what can be done about it
  • Presentation on hazards of E-cigarettes
  • Presentation on effects of marijuana on the lungs
  • Presentation on the effects of breathing cold, dry air on the lungs

Case studies:

  • Bronchitis
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Emphysema
  • Lung cancer
  • Primary ciliary dyskinesia
  • Primary pulmonary hypertension
  • Restrictive lung disease

In addition to the team project, for the renal physiology section, teams are asked to prepare a 90-minute block teaching module for high school students in either AP Biology or Anatomy and Physiology.  For a 90-minute block, it is recommended that at least 3 different activities be offered.  Thus, the undergraduate students prepare a 30-min principles of renal physiology PowerPoint lesson, a 30-min case study done by high school student teams, and a 30-min competitive game as a review of the material.  The undergraduate students have credited this learning activity as key to their understanding about renal physiology and teaching.

Now that Advanced Human Physiology has grown to 40 students (10 teams of 4 students), planning and presentations of team projects can take quite a bit of time in class.  It is important to have class time for the student teams to design and work on their projects rather than requiring the students to accomplish everything outside of class.  Team project presentations can be expedited by short times (10-15 minutes) accompanied by a peer evaluation.  All students are required to complete a rubric that asks “something new I learned”, “something really good”, and “something that could be improved” for each presentation.  As the faculty member reading and collating these evaluations, it is clear to me that the class members are using professional evaluation skills in making suggestions to their colleagues.  Thus, this aspect of the project is also an important skill for pre-professional students to learn. I have been impressed by how many times the presenters mention concepts that they have recently learned in the course as evidence.

Based on my experience, I recommend project-based learning to be used by teams in a student-centered physiology course.  Let the students choose their own projects and their own style of presentation and they will be excited and do an excellent job.





Barb Goodman received her PhD in Physiology from the University of Minnesota and is currently a Professor in the Basic Biomedical Sciences Department of the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. Her research focuses on improving student learning through innovative and active pedagogy.


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