Lessons Learned from Reviewing Cluster Project Proposals

One of the sessions that I was involved in during the January Jamboree was about the lessons learned regarding successful cluster projects so far. Annette Holba, Cindy Waltman, Laura Dykstra and I provided insight from the perspective of guides reviewing project proposals and Mary Ann McGarry spoke from the perspective of someone who has been the manager of a cluster project.

The 4 guides started with the idea that because the cluster initiative is focused on creating opportunities for our students to have high impact experiences, all projects should get students involved as early as possible. An ideal project has students involved as early as the project planning phase. At the very least, the student involvement in the project should have some external result, something that is seen by people outside of the classroom. This could be a public art exhibit or a report or product for an external partner. It could be a theater or dance performance or a series of blog posts. The important point is that the student work reaches an outside audience and takes on a life outside of the classroom. We want to get students fully engaged in their educational journey and if they are involved in the planning of what their work will be, they are likely to be more engaged than if they’re told what the work will be. And understanding the use of their work outside of the classroom will create further engagement.

We also talked about the fact that PSU currently has resources to fund these kinds of projects but that funding will not continue indefinitely into the future. The vision is that if we fund projects now, we can provide the resources that faculty need in order to learn how to effectively and efficiently engage students in cluster projects. So some faculty are receiving teaching release time now to run these projects in order to figure out how to do them without release time in the future. As an aside, this to me is one of the biggest obstacles to a sustained effort in these kinds of projects. Faculty are extremely busy and we need help to figure out what to stop doing in order to create these project opportunities going forward.

One of the ways we might continue to create these projects when funding for release time goes away is to embed them into classes rather than having them be add-on experiences for both the faculty and the students. Many of the projects that we’ve funded so far are embedded in classes. For example, this fall, the Resilience Project was embedded in many classes across campus. This collaboration among a fairly large group of faculty members created an exhibit of the work of a visiting artist and many students who were responding to the notion of “resilience” from their various disciplinary perspectives as part of their course work. The exhibit changed over the course of the semester as more student work was added. I understand, however, that embedding the project into a class doesn’t necessarily create a reasonable work load. Phil Lonergan and Amanda Whitworth combined their sculpture and dance classes to create a dance performance that incorporated large sculptural pieces. The result was really cool but the work load for both the faculty and the students was huge. Phil and Amanda had not asked for release time in their project proposal so what they accomplished with this project is really amazing. The lesson, I think, is that project-based education can be much more time-consuming than our traditional educational practices.

Another reason to embed these projects into classes has to do with the commitment of our external partners. When we first started talking about increasing the opportunities for our students to engage in high-impact experiences, I was thinking we would create more internships for our students. We probably will do that but there is a limit to the number of internship opportunities we can create. Our external partners only have a certain capacity to supervise interns. If we work with our external partners through our classes, on the other hand, the partner can communicate primarily with the instructor of the class and the instructor can manage the work of all of the students in the class so that they’re all getting the benefit of working on a project. For example, we might have an external partner who is interested in the creation of marketing videos. The partner might be able to supervise 1 or 2 interns to help with the creation of the videos. That’s great. But we can get more students to participate in the creation of these marketing videos if we embed that project into a class. We might have students work in teams to storyboard a variety of marketing videos and then ask the partner to choose the one or two they would like to see developed into actual videos. The class could then work together to create them. Scaling up these experiences is one of the major goals of the cluster initiative.

In response to a question, the guides talked about the project proposal process itself. We have often had to ask for clarification about project proposals. In particular, we often find that the proposals are not clear about the roles and responsibilities of the faculty involved in the project. Clearly identifying who will take on what tasks is particularly important when the faculty are requesting release time. We also often have to ask additional questions about the budget. For example, the proposal shouldn’t say “$1000 for equipment.” It should clearly identify what equipment will be purchased and for what purpose. We also have often seen contradictions in the proposals as though different parts of the proposal are written by different participants. We strongly encourage any faculty members who are writing project proposals to come to the cluster open sessions to discuss the proposals. We are also often available to look at drafts of the proposals to give feedback on them. Finally, faculty members should not feel insulted if the guides ask questions about the proposal after it is submitted. We are just trying to understand what the project is all about. We just want these projects to move us in a positive direction regarding the cluster initiative.

Mary Ann then provided some insights from the perspective of a project manager. She suggested that faculty integrate their cluster projects into the class and make the project work part of the grade for the course. She also suggested that having an external partner visit the class is very powerful since students hear information from the partner quite differently than they hear it from the faculty member. The partner’s words carry more weight. She also suggested that the most powerful part of the project for students is their reflection on the work that they’ve done on the project so this kind of reflection should be a required part of the class. She suggested that student work should be showcased in some some way. Finally, she suggested that faculty think carefully about the impact or “ripple effect” of the projects they propose.

The conversation at the session was fairly wide-ranging so I hope I’ve captured the essence of what we discussed. I would suggest that if you’re working on a project proposal, you should talk to the guides of the cluster that you’re going to ask for funding from. We have a lot of experience now thinking through what these projects should do and I think we can give you a lot of great advice to make your project as meaningful and effective as possible.

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