A professor speaks to a group of students sitting in the film viewing room with black and white film on the screen over his shoulder.

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Students’ class project turns into real change for York College’s library website

Outside of the Schmidt Library building.

Dr. Gabriel Cutrufello doesn’t know where his students are going to end up.

He can’t be certain where their chosen field will take them. He can’t teach them about every kind of document they might need to use or create.

But he does know they’ll need to understand how to problem-solve, and with the inclusion of project-based learning in his curriculum, that’s exactly what he’s teaching at York College of Pennsylvania.

A project with no answer

It started with a conversation.

Students in Dr. Cutrufello’s Scientific and Technical Communication class were put in groups and assigned a specific area of the York College Schmidt Library website to study its usability. Then, they had to figure out what that study would look like.

“It’s a challenging project to do because it is open ended,” Dr. Cutrufello says.

There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s all about figuring out what works best to gather data, evaluate that data, and present findings back to a client. That answer varies depending on the client and the data.

The class was made up primarily of sophomores. For many, it was their first time dipping their toes into the pool of project-based learning.

“It was a different experience,” says Diashalyqe Bradley, a sophomore Psychology major, “something I hadn’t really done before.”

Through guided class periods challenging the students to develop answers to specific problems such as how to create data visualization or deploy their findings, students were able to gain confidence.

“It was nice for us to have a class where we could kind of guide ourselves, but Dr. Cutrufello was there if we needed,” Diashalyqe says.

Upping the stakes

One element of this kind of project-based learning Dr. Cutrufello likes is the real-world experience it provides.

His students weren’t just tackling a theoretical issue — they developed a research method, conducted a study on their own school library’s website, analyzed their results, and presented their findings to a real client. Now, those findings are being considered by the library.

“I felt like if it was a theoretical thing we wouldn’t put in as much time and effort into it,” Diashalyqe says. “It’s something that we actually use, that we as students can actually use.”

This kind of project-based learning also pulls back the curtain in a way. It shows students why they need to be able to write papers and reports and be able to accurately communicate their findings.

“It demonstrates to students that this kind of writing is more than a hoop that you jump through to get to the end of the semester,” Dr. Cutrufello says. 

The light bulb

Dr. Cutrufello has seen that “aha moment” when the light bulb goes off for a student. It usually happens during those mini conversations, when the students are working in groups.

They’ll ask, “Oh do you want a pie chart there?” And instead of a yes or no, it turns in to a conversation about the best way to communicate with the client.

“It’s challenging because I think it’s not how most students expect things to work,” he says.

For him, classes aren’t just lecturing for an hour — they’re a time for group work and planning. And students aren’t buried in their phones at the beginning of class, they’re talking with their classmates and working together.

The experience was a first for Diashalyqe. Now, she says, she’s ready for more.

“I can’t wait to start expanding and doing independent student and working with other individuals,” she says. “I just can’t wait to get more into my profession.”