Article no. 4
based on Chapter 3 of the book

 Project-Based Learning Stories – Talking to Academic Staff


Welcome to the fourth installment of this new five-article series on an exciting and innovative development in the global education futures space – Project-Based Learning – at FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE. This fourth article talks directly to a number of Future University academic staff to tell their PBL stories and experiences.

This fourth installment is based on Chapter three of Professor Noyuri Mima’s book The Design of Project-Based Learning – Learning Methodologies to Transform Our Futures. This article summarizes interviews conducted with eight FUN academic staff about their experiences with the PBL program with a focus on their individual approaches.

The SWIFT Project ‘JIPURI’ with KEI ITO, Associate Professor Information Architecture, Advanced ICT & Information Systems Courses

What kinds of issues do you come across in the PBL course?

“Firstly, we called our project ‘Project Swift’ – a word taken from the English in reference to a certain very nimble bird. Basically, Project Swift involves designing an app for the iPhone for which we worked in close collaboration with a Hakodate City community – the Jinkawa-Asahi Town Council, which operates a number of local events and festivals, such as the Winter Festival. Historically, these various events have been organized and managed using three main media types: telephone, e-mail and fax. Our project aims to streamline all of that into a single coordinated system – ‘Swift’. The Swift app – which we called ‘Jipuri’ – allows users to not only apply for their events but also to receive real-time updates, manage their applications, and receive notifications about sudden event changes, and so on.”

Non-academic collaborators critiquing of student work inspires self-improvement

“In the case of the Jipuri app developed with the Jinkawa-Asahi Town Council, students attended a number of hearings with stakeholders to get their heads around the numbers and kinds of events they had been organizing, what problems they had faced, and what expectations they held for a new organizational tool. All of this initial backgrounding along with continuous user feedback on the interface design, allowed students to come up with a highly useable system. What we the academic staff learnt from this process was that students were more inclined to listen and take action on feedback received from outside the university. This kind of feedback from the Town Council and prototype users seemed to act as a reality check for students.”

Quickfire Q & A

Q1: What were the main things learned by PBL students?

“According to student feedback they commented that the PBL was a life-changing experience. To be sure, those changes differed from student to student. One student had an epiphany about the meaning of learning in general while another commented they had learned to listen to the thoughts of others better. I found these student idiosyncratic outcomes very interesting!”

Q2: What was good for you from the overall PBL experience?

“Personally speaking, I enjoyed working outside the university system and developing new networks with people and organizations from different backgrounds. We academics often get stuck inside our own research areas and tend to take things for granted but when working with people outside our fields, there’s no taking anything for granted! I learnt a lot from this.”

Project for Designing a Local Community wit SHIGEYA YASUI, Associate Professor, Information Design Course

Tell us about your interestingly-named ‘zuu-shii-hokkii’ project

“The character Zuu-shii-hokkii was the result of a 2013 PBL project working with the neighboring town of Hokuto where Hokki Sushi is a well-known food. This collaboration involved FUN academic staff and students along with the people of Hokuto and local government with a view to devising a new design to benefit the town which could be promoted throughout the town to add value. Before coming to Future University Hakodate I was involved in GUI – graphic user interface – and so when approached to design this character for a local business we jumped at the opportunity.”

Surveys and analyses prior to the design phase

“As designers we can’t just jump into designing a character – it requires preliminary research in the form of surveys, analyzing results and so on – before the actual design phase can kick off. First of all, we conducted research on 120 region-customized character designs looking at factors such as color, impression, kinds of motifs used, personality of the character, marketing methods, and SNS usage. Based on this we formulated a hypothesis on what makes a successful character design along three dimensions:

  1. Gaps between exterior look of the character and its personality
  2. SNS usage effectiveness, and
  3. The extent to which the new character does not encroach on the personalities of other customized character types.”

“Guided by this three-factor hypothesis we presented our results to the Hokuto Town Mayor and from there on proceeded to forge a collaborative research path. At this point we worked closely with local townspeople using surveys, collecting data and so on to come to understand the nature of the community itself before embarking on the character design. We conducted fieldwork around community spaces observing and taking note of local landmarks and products. We also spent time working with local schools and school children to better understand what they thought a Hokuto character should be like. FUN students even worked together with them to make a number of mock-up characters as the basis for refinement and eventual design completion. All in all, I think the school children loved and learned a lot from the experience and especially appreciated the key holder gift we presented them all. We used their hand-drawn designs and baked them in the oven onto enamel – this motivated our FUN students to see the joy they had brought to the children! It also informed the next design-prototyping phase whereby FUN students were always thinking: How can our final character design make these kids and others from Hokuto Town happy?”

All-for-one project work style

“Once we started the design and production phase I had all team members come up with five mock-up character designs – 60 in total. Even the students not majoring in Information Design, who weren’t always comfortable with their drawing and design skills, had to do this task. It’s good to have a real mix of different kinds of students with their own strengths and weaknesses. Mix it all up I say and from that chaotic mix we got surprising and creative character designs emerging. These designs took into account all the research we had collectively done including the surveys, stakeholder discussions, school workshops, and so on. The designs were then filtered through the various participating organizations until we finally had five of the most popular character designs to work from.”

“At this point public presentations and voting led to the selection of a single character design which was then refined, the character was given a name, the trademark was registered, and so on – all in all, an extraordinary and meaningful real-world experience for our FUN students that no other course type could offer.”

What was your style of interacting with the PBL students?

“Well, if they asked me what they should do, I’d just say, ‘I have no idea’. This process was new to all of us, academic staff included, and so there was no right answer. We could guide them with basic skills, but it was their job to come up with the creative tasks and idea generation by themselves. I was honest with them and if I didn’t like their design, I’d tell them and make them go away to figure out for themselves why the design didn’t appeal.”

What was their big take home from the PBL learning experience?

“This was the moment when they had to apply to a real-world situation all they had learnt in their first two years at FUN. It was a reality check for them if nothing else. Students had to take ownership of the entirety of the project flow from conception through to commercialization of the character design – something they would have never had the opportunity to do before.”

Electricity Efficient Prosthetic Hand Project with SHIGERU SAKURAZAWA, Professor, Complexity Intelligence Department, Complex Systems Course

Evolution of the electricity-efficient prosthetic hand project

Led by Professor Shigeru Sakurazawa, this project started in 2010. To be upfront, prosthetics is not even Professor Sakurazawa’s main research field. By training he is actually a biophysicist and his research has included understanding the mechanisms of muscle protein molecules as one aspect of creating human muscle-to-machine interfaces. Comments Professor Sakurzawa:

“When I was thinking about a good PBL research project from conception through to finished product that combined information and technology, it came to mind that studying what we call biosignals would be a research-worthy topic. Biosignals can be measured as electrical signals on a conventional home computer. These electrical signals can then be sent as mechanical signals to control objects connected by computer. In other words, a complete information systems approach can be applied to manipulating human body parts – a research theme I thought would be of particular interest to FUN PBL students as well as bringing life-changing practical benefit to the physically challenged members of our communities.”

“Since 2002 this project has proved very popular with FUN students and so I have become very specific when selecting the final team members, based not so much on their grades but their levels of enthusiasm and ability to generate ideas. Many will start with limited technical knowledge but that’s no problem. Our academic team instructs them the first few sessions with the basic knowledge they will need. So, we are more interested in their thoughts as to how this knowledge base can be of benefit to society and contribute to the well-being of people.”

The making of the prosthetic hand

“Japanese made prosthetics are surprisingly not the best in the world. Factors such as wearability, weight, maintenance and so on, are cited as reasons underlying our less-than-optimum performance in prosthetics technologies. Furthermore, until now, prosthetics have generally not been properly evaluated by the appropriate end-users which led students to rightly point out that it was meaningless to design these devices without those who are physically challenged actually testing their usability.”

“However, unlike the other healthcare-related PBL projects, we didn’t have close connections with industry and so had to go out and find people, eventually teaming up with the CEO of a local manufacturer who assisted in the overall research process. He was incredibly helpful and hands on with our project and although we were all rather anxious about whether our prosthetic would actually work, when it did, there was amazement and incredible satisfaction. It wasn’t only students who got a lot out of this project but I myself also learnt so much!”

Adapting the electricity-efficient prosthetic hand to other human body parts

“Our project, like a few others at FUN, is not a one-off but an ongoing project that builds knowledge with each successive PBL team. This is both good and bad in that some students might feel they are not starting something new but simply taking over from where their senior students left off. That’s where we as facilitators step in to motivate them to find fresh and innovative directions for the project.”

“In 2016 we expanded the project and called it ASHURA the Japanese naming of the six-armed Buddhist demigod of war, Asura. We wondered how human behaviors would be influenced if we were to have six arms – which technically, is not impossible! We presented our theme as not being about just a prosthetic arm but the arm as one tangible example of how this biosignal research can be applied to a multitude of applications which integrate AI, information systems and other specialty areas into a coordinated whole.”

“Another extension of this overall project was ‘Tsubasa’ – which means literally ‘wings’ in Japanese. A shoulder attachment is controlled by Arduino to activate the wings up and down and forwards/backwards. With this device we found that individual physical differences could cause the wings to activate in unexpected ways, leaving this project open to improvements for the next generation of student teams while also showing them that the basic biosignal technology has unlimited applications for them to build on.”

Quickfire Q & A

Q1: What do you want your students to learn most from the PBL experience?

“I think the most important things are to take responsibility and ownership for a given project, and make it work. By working in teams, they have to make decisions and face all kinds of obstacles – going through that process and coming out the other end is a significant challenge but it will make them better people for it.”

Q2: How is the work load for the academic staff?

“For us to be sure it is a major challenge – but well worth the effort. From the pain of having one more research theme to be pursued there is also enjoyment to be derived and it makes us the academic staff feel like students all over again!”

Professor YOSHIAKI MIMA Conducts Q & A Interviews  with FUN Saff on  Their Doubts about PBL For Future University Newcomers

We now turn to a Q & A session with PBL veteran of 17 years, Professor Yoshiaki Mima from the Information Design course. Professor Mima has also been with Future University since day one and was involved in the Project-Based Learning initiative from inception. He comments:

“When Future University Hakodate was first launched, we were like the anti-thesis of all that Japanese education stood for. The conventional thinking was that students dutifully attended lectures, took their tests and aimed for the best grades they could, but we at FUN always had our doubts about how meaningful this paradigm was as a foundational educational philosophy. Our rethink of the deeper meaning of education and learning led us to the Project-Based Learning concept.”

“Our thinking was that even with so-called expert knowledge diligently learnt over one’s university years, without a way to apply that knowledge, it all goes to waste and what is more, calls into question the very identity of the ‘expert’. So, from this perspective, we sought to create the PBL experience at FUN as a strategy for giving students that sense of place where their knowledge could be applied to real-world situations and problems.”

For those academic staff having led PBL teams over the years, the value of PBL may seem clear but for those academic newcomers to FUN, it may seem to go against the grain of everything they have been taught about the nature of tertiary education in Japan. On this point, we now probe Professor Yoshiaki Mima and other FUN colleagues on their thoughts about the value of PBL.

Q1: What kinds of themes do you think work best for the PBL course at FUN?

YOSHIAKI MIMA: “In my opinion, the themes should reflect not our individual preferences but those of third parties, in other words, the community. To illustrate, with the healthcare project, the ‘problem’ emerges from the synergies between healthcare professionals, providers and patients, who are also the same people who will evaluate the relative success of the project. This is very significant as a learning experience.”

KEI ITOH: “For me, I think the best themes are those that really hone the skill sets of the students. Working as a coordinated team, conducting research and surveys, identifying problems and solutions, working closely with community organizations, developing a novel information system and communicating all this with one’s peers and the wider community – this is an immeasurably valuable learning experience.”

Q2: As a team effort, how do you get to understand the individual circumstances of the students?

TAKU OKUNO: “The first thing we have to do as the academic team is to be good listeners during student team discussions. We also have to observe closely as there are diverse personality types in every team – students who like to take control, those that have an opinion but are reluctant to speak out, confident ones, reserved types and so on – so we need to be good listeners and observers in order to understand the individuals and their group dynamics. Only then are we well-positioned to guide them based on their idiosyncrasies and individual needs.”

Q3: When working with individuals and organizations outside the university, what kinds of things do you need to be aware of for a successful PBL outcome?

KEI ITOH: “The first thing to be aware of is ensuring that student team members have a very clear understanding of what the PBL is, what it can and cannot do. From day one we have a list of items to be clarified that might emphasize the following:

  1. PBL is a one-year project with education-based objectives
  2. Sessions are conducted to a carefully coordinated schedule and throughout the PBL process product development milestones are required
  3. Unforeseen problems will almost definitely emerge that need to be dealt with accordingly.

Furthermore, these basic guidelines need to be reminded to students over the full duration of the course.”

Article no. 3  Article no. 5

Translated by Dr. David Lindsay Wright, former Associate Professor of FUN and coordinator for Project-Based Learning, 2004 – 2011, as adapted from the original Japanese text by Professor Noyuri Mima (Chief Editor) June 2018, FUTURE UNIVERSITY HAKODATE.