Project-based learning offers an authentic and meaningful way to engage students. To learn more about this innovative teaching approach, we connected with Dr. Dennis Sigur, Computer Science Instructor at Dillard University in New Orleans, who uses project-based learning in his database course.

“You can see a light bulb go off in [a student’s] head,” says Dr. Sigur. “Project-based learning takes what they learn in the book and brings it to reality. It’s a great opportunity for students to develop, and I always get great reviews after this class because students are so excited.”

What can students learn from project-based learning?

  1. Critical thinking and creativity
  2. Communication skills
  3. Problem solving
  4. Time management
  5. Decision making

1. Critical thinking and creativity

With project-based learning, students learn to define challenges, questions, and requirements, and develop unique solutions. Dr. Sigur consistently sees his students’ understanding and comprehension improve throughout the course project.

2. Communication skills

Dr. Sigur helps his students practice professional communication by encouraging them to reach out to business leaders with questions related to their class projects. This can be particularly impactful for students from younger generations who grew up in a world dominated by texting and social media.

3. Problem solving

To teach students to solve real-world problems, Dr. Sigur uses a combination of realistic course projects and zyBooks, an interactive textbook replacement packed with engaging animations and exercises inspired by real life. “That’s what I love about the zyBook,” says Dr. Sigur. “It forces my students to read and go through these real-world problems to get a better understanding.”

4. Time management

As professors know all too well, students often wait until the last minute to begin an assignment. Project-based learning forces students to evaluate the multiple steps required to practice planning ahead and complete their project in advance.

5. Decision making

In Dr. Sigur’s project-based course, students select the technology and tools for their projects on their own. Going through this process helps students overcome decision paralysis caused by wanting to be perfect. As Dr. Sigur says, “It’s never perfect in real life.”

When to use project-based learning

While project-based learning can create a sense of authenticity in many computer science courses, there are some subjects that pair better with this method than others. Coding or development classes, for example, will likely reap more of the benefits of project-based learning than a course focused on theory or concept.

Tip: If choosing to use project-based learning for a first-year class, be sure to keep the project simple, as some students may not have coding experience.

How to use project-based learning in your computer science class

Select real-life resources and tools

To create a true real-world experience for your students, select resources students will likely encounter in their future careers. For Dr. Sigur’s database course, this included a MySQL Database, Server, and Google Cloud, as well as SQL Workbench or DBeaver. Students will enjoy learning how to use the new resources and learn a compelling story to tell in job interviews.

Create a curated project list

Provide a list of projects with more ideas than students and allow them to pitch their own. Students can choose projects relevant to their own interests or jobs, which can boost engagement. For his database project, Professor Sigur provides options ranging from inventory control management or student record-keeping systems to railway systems or hotel management.

Provide clear instructions

The first time Dr. Sigur tried project-based learning, he learned quite a few lessons himself. He gave his students basic instructions and waited until the project submission date to review. The result was low-quality projects made up of undetailed data dictionaries, insufficient data in tables, and poorly designed entity-relationship diagrams. How did he turn it around?

Dr. Sigur improved the project instructions by making the following changes:

  • Splitting the project into parts and adjusting grading weights to indicate the importance of each part.
  • Setting review dates. While the entire project is due at the end of the semester, Dr. Sigur sets review dates for each part of the project to ensure students are on track.
  • Assigning related zyBooks sections and activities in parallel to their work on the project.

Want to learn more?

Watch Dr. Dennis Sigur’s Project-Based Learning Webinar.


Dennis SigurAbout Dr. Dennis Sigur

Dr. Dennis Sigur is an instructor of computer science at Dillard University. He has provided functional and technical support in the evaluation, analysis, development, enhancement, and maintenance of processes and major software systems. He currently teaches courses in computer science and management information systems, and provides tutoring and academic counseling to students, maintains class-related records, and assesses student coursework. He collaborates with and supports colleagues in their research interests and co-curricular activities. Dennis has also served as a college of business instructor.