What do we mean by community-based and project-based learning?

Community-based learning and project-based learning encompass a broad spectrum of curricular activity that link learning both inside and outside the classroom. This can include a variety of modes, including but not limited to:

Courses may employ one or more modes of community-based and/or project-based learning to accomplish faculty teaching and learning goals.

How might you adapt…

Community-based and project-based learning can be used as effective strategies for addressing a number of unique teaching challenges presented by COVID-19, from building community with your students in a remote or hybrid environment, to supporting student engagement with course content. CCE staff can help you think about your teaching and learning goals for upcoming courses and how these modes might be designed and implemented in a way that’s responsive both to those goals and the resources available to you and your students.

The following list includes suggestions and strategies for integrating modes of CBL and PBL in your courses this coming fall.

Long-term Community Partnerships

Long-term community partnerships allow faculty members and community organizations to develop relationships and build trust. As a result, courses can be designed that meet both the pedagogical goals of Amherst College faculty and a need articulated by a community partner.

During the current pandemic, the needs of and resources available to community partners may have shifted dramatically.  Some are facing an unprecedented demand for their services, while others are taking advantage of this time to explore new ways of enacting their missions. This presents an opportunity to check in with organizations with which you have an existing relationship to learn more about their current needs, or to explore possibilities for new partnerships.


Libraries, Archives, and Museums

  • Several local libraries and archives are documenting the community response to COVID-19. The Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, the Forbes Library in Northampton, and the Frost Library are all soliciting stories about the ways in which community members are being impacted by the pandemic.
  • Other libraries and museums are using social media, their websites, and other online tools and resources to reach their audiences in new ways. The Holyoke Public Library has closed their physical space, but is engaging the community through social media platforms. The Eric Carle Museum is hosting virtual story times and has launched a new virtual exhibit. The Mead Art Museum has developed the Mead From Home series and virtual tour, and is expanding the number of tagged artworks in their searchable databases.

Community Services Organizations and Local Government

  • Organizations such as the 413Cares, Look4Help, and United Way of Hampshire County are maintaining active lists of ways to help local organizations and other opportunities to support the local community.
  • Local cities and towns, such as Amherst, Holyoke, and Northampton, have created websites to consolidate information about policy changes, public notices, and available resources for residents and businesses.

Examples of past courses that have engaged with long-term community partnerships can be found here.

Course Projects

Whether they are discreet, short-term assignments or are structured to take place over the course of the semester, projects can link course content to community contexts and help students to develop discipline-specific skills.

During the current pandemic, course projects can be used to help students connect with each other and build relationships, connect what they are learning in a course with community-based projects and initiatives, and/or practice discipline-specific skills.


Students connect with each other and build relationships

  • The CCE has collected a number of tools and activities that can be used to build community in the classroom (whether virtual or in-person). This includes ways to establish group norms, setting shared expectations, developing best practices for working in a group, and more.

Students connect what they are learning in a course with community-based projects and initiatives

  • The Zooniverse enables everyone to take part in ongoing research in many fields across the sciences, humanities, and more. Projects include transcription of anti-slavery manuscripts with the Boston Public Library, translation/transcription of vintage Cuban radio with the UCLA library, and viewing/coding of videos documenting raccoon behavior with the University of Wyoming.

Students practice discipline-specific skills

  • During the Fall semester of 2019, Prof. Rhonda Cobham-Sander's course BLST-212 Digital Africas maintained a private blog where all students posted every week. This project encouraged students to become creators, and not just consumers, of digital content, and connect their learning with the wider world. It could also be easily adapted to a remote environment, providing a common experience for all students in a course whether they are working synchronously or asynchronously.

Examples of past courses that have utilized course projects can be found here. Tips for designing project-based learning for a remote environment can be found in this helpful infographic.

Public Scholarship

Public scholarship offers rich opportunities for students to reflect on how the ideas they have studied apply in new settings and contexts; provides direct opportunities to collaborate with and learn from community members very different from themselves; and allows them to share what they have learned with a broad range of non-academic audiences, using a variety of approaches.

Public scholarship projects utilize a range of forums for presenting student research to a popular audience, including (but not limited to) public lectures, opinion pieces, arts and media, research reports for community partners, apps and websites, and podcasts.

During the current pandemic, public scholarship projects can allow students to engage with a range of issues, including the public health crisis, through an academic lens. Sharing their work publicly can help increase students’ engagement and motivation, making what they have learned tangible and enhancing the social dimension of their learning.

  • In Spring 2020, after making the switch to remote learning, Prof. Sheila Jaswal and Prof. Will Loinaz posed a new challenge to the students in their course, BCBP-400 Molecular and Cellular Biophysics: come up with a module together that allowed them to investigate the ongoing pandemic using both a human and biophysical lenses. Students applied what they learned about the physics and chemistry of biomolecules to scientific writing about coronavirus in an effort to make sense of the virus. The resulting projects, which took on a variety of forms, made this information more accessible to a lay audience.

Examples of past courses that have incorporated public scholarship can be found here.

Guest Speakers

Guest speakers or trainers from the community come to class to share their expertise and experience in a subject, or to train students on a specific methodology or community-based research practice.

During the current pandemic, guest speakers are still an effective way to deliver engaging content to your students or provide training on specific skills. For synchronous class sessions, guests can join over Zoom. In courses meeting asynchronously, the faculty member might record an interview with a guest speaker or ask if the speaker would be willing to record their presentation to share.

Things to consider when utilizing guest speakers in a remote classroom:

  • Selecting a speaker: Teaching in a remote environment facilitates the inclusion of speakers regardless of geographic location.
    • The CCE can help faculty connect with local speakers and trainers.
    • Alumni and Parent Programs can help identify alumni with expertise.
  • Structuring the visit: When welcoming a guest speaker in a remote environment, providing structure before, during, and after the visit can facilitate engagement for both students and the speaker. The CCE can offer examples or suggestions of activities and approaches that you might use.
    • Pre-visit:
      • Work with the speaker to identify articles or other readings they would like the students to review beforehand to provide a common experience for all participants.
      • Consider creative strategies for helping students generate questions or to allow them input into structuring the time with the speaker.
    • During the session:
      • Think about how students will submit questions. For synchronous sessions, set expectations with both the students and the speaker about how you will use various features in Zoom (i.e. chat, hand raising, etc.).
      • Consider how the time with the speaker will be structured. Long presentations can be challenging to attend to remotely; varying the structure can help students maintain focus.
    • Post-visit:
      • As in an in-person classroom setting, reflexive writing assignments can help students synthesize and connect the speaker’s comments with course content more broadly.
      • Students’ takeaways and questions can be shared back with the speaker. Knowing that they’ll be asked to do this in advance can provide more structured focus for their interaction with the speaker. Additionally, speakers are often curious to hear what students have gleaned from their visit.

Examples of past courses that have incorporated guest speakers can be found here.

Study Trips

Study trips allow students to experience course concepts in contexts outside of the classroom. They can take many forms, from local field trips to place-based or community-engaged research trips.

During the current pandemic, in-person travel is not feasible or allowed. However, more and more sites are making virtual tours of their spaces available. In order to ensure that students effectively make connections between a virtual tour and class content, faculty might consider pairing this option with another CBL mode, such as:

  • Guest speakers with a connection to the site who can answer questions in real time or provide a specific scholarly perspective
  • Project based assignments that explicitly ask students to engage more deeply with the site and how it connects back to the course
  • Public scholarship projects that produce materials for the site and/or a broader audience

Examples of past courses that have incorporated study trips can be found here.