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Students Practicing Problem-Based Learning in STEM Programs 

Problem-based learning (PBL) can be defined by certain characteristics:

  • The learning is driven by open-ended problems with no right answer.
  • The problems are context-specific.
  • Students work as self-directed problem solvers in small groups.
  • Key problem is identified and a solution is agreed upon and implemented.
  • The instructor plays the role of a facilitator of learning, guiding the process and promoting an environment of inquiry.


PBL originated from a curriculum reform by medical faculty at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1950s. PBL has spread to over 50 medical schools, and has diffused into many other professional fields including law, economics, architecture, mechanical and civil engineering, as well as in K-12 curricula.

Traditional education practices produce students faced with a vast amount of information to memorize, much of which seems irrelevant to the world as it exists outside of school. Traditional classroom learning models cannot often be applied to the problems and tasks they face in the business/work world. With problem-based learning, students are motivated to learn by a need to understand and solve real problems; students become aware of a need for knowledge as they work to resolve problems.

Problem-based learning is a key component of a National Science Foundation grant recently awarded to Yavapai College’s School of Career and Technical Education. Some students in the Applied Pre-Engineering program and the Integrated Systems Engineering Technician program are placed in local companies on projects. Students are instructed to, with the help of the company mentors, identify a problem and bring it back to the classroom where as a group they can work to find a solution. The solution can then be implemented under the guidance of the mentor at the company.

The faculty involved with the National Science Foundation grant at the Career and Technical Education campus of Yavapai College received additional training in the design and implementation of problem-based learning within each of their disciplines. By definition, PBL for the students is the process of acquiring new knowledge based on the recognition of a need to learn. A student’s place within a company’s structure helps to motivate the student to seek to apply his/her new knowledge base under the guidance of a company mentor. This process helps the students apply their knowledge and can help the companies.

Three companies have agreed to be part of the National Science Foundation grant project: Arizona Archery Enterprises, Merit Engineering and RESA Wearables, Inc. Each of these organizations has taken on students to work within their organization in order to provide students a real-life, practical classroom. By using PBL, students can develop critical thinking and creative skills, improve their problem-solving skills, increase their motivation and better understand how to transfer knowledge to new non-classroom situations under the guidance of a company mentor.

The Applied Pre-Engineering program at Yavapai College is built around problem-based learning. The goal of the program is to provide students with the knowledge base to work in such work activities as process control, electrical power distribution and/or instrumentation design and troubleshooting. The Integrated System Engineering Technician certificate provides students with a well-rounded approach in the development and testing of electrical controlled equipment in industry.

In January, a National Association of College and Employers (NACE) paper cited attributes that employers seek in candidates: people who are used to working in groups and doing projects, people who have good communication skills and those who have relevant field work experience.

These are skills easier to gain while studying in applied sciences. A U.S. Department of Commerce (STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, July 2011) paper stated that STEM workers drive our nation’s innovation and competitive edge by generating new ideas, new companies, and new industries. However, U.S. businesses voice concern over supply and availability of STEM workers since growth, over the past 10 years, was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs. QCBN


By Jim Voska

Additional information on STEM programs can be found at or by logging into to explore career areas.


For more information on Yavapai College’s STEM programs, contact YC’s Career Coaches Linda Brannock at or Jim Voska at .




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