The new ultra-modern Cairns Institute at James Cook University (JCU) recently played host to our students. Through our collaboration with JCU, the students spent an afternoon with Professor Abert Schram, a former SFS faculty member, now the Vice Chancellor of Papua New Guinea University Technology, who introduced them to Problem-Based Learning (PBL). The exercise involved addressing a real life issue, namely, the proposed development of a multi-billion dollar, Macau–style mega resort and casino in Yorkeys Knobs in Cairns’ northern beaches. The project must pass environmental, social, and economic approval, and the developers are in the process of undertaking public consultation.
PBL involves students working together in small tutorial groups to develop and take responsibility for their own learning objectives. They take an active role to study literature to help them solve a complex problem. The process of finding the solution is structured and is as important as the solution itself.
After a brief introduction of the PBL process by Professor Schram, students leapt at the challenge with enthusiasm. The task before them was to identify the potential socio-economic and environmental factors surrounding this development and come up with sound recommendations. Professor Schram and I acted as tutors, but students led the discussions, identified learning objectives, divided tasks, and planned follow-up group meetings. I listened as students asked each other some good questions, such as, what do we know about the subject? What do we have to find out in order to solve the problem? The quality of the discussion was very high and I could tell from their demeanor that they enjoyed being in control of their own learning.
Later that week, students were welcomed at the Tablelands Regional Council (TRC) boardroom for a role-play exercise on the contested issue of sustainability. The exercise made the room—normally reserved for the orderly but often staid conduct of the council’s business—into a theatre abuzz with the excitement of learning.