By Jorge Membrillo-Hernández

You’ve probably heard about the Tec21 Educational Model, a didactic strategy that Tecnológico de Monterrey will implement 100 percent from August on, when the 2019-2020 school year begins.

However, since 2013, the Institution has partially and gradually implemented this educational model, which encourages students to actively participate in their learning process, within the framework of the didactic technique of Challenge-Based Learning (CBL). This technique fosters a challenging and interactive learning process since one of the central proposals of the Tec21 model is to challenge the student to develop transversal disciplinary competencies.

Challenge-Based Learning is a novel pedagogical tool that requires a great deal of effort on the part of students, but also of teachers. Acquiring knowledge by solving a challenge implies that the teacher is not a passive or “lecturing” agent, but a mentor, a coach who actively assists in the process to solve the challenge.

But what is the difference between Project-Based Learning (PBL), Problem-Based or Practice-Based Learning (PrBL), Research-Based Learning (RBL), and Challenge- Based Learning (CBL)? How difficult is it to develop the content of curricular subjects through challenge solution? What changes does the student or teacher need to adapt to this new form of teaching-learning?

To determine this, a team of professors from the Mechatronics Department of the School of Engineering and Sciences of the Mexico City Campus, led by Dr. José Carlos Miranda, Dr. Hugo Elizalde, and Dr. Miguel Ramírez, set out to develop this pedagogical tool and, with a team of students from IDS, IMT and IME, designed a plan to establish the basis for the implementation of CBL, which is the pedagogical basis of the Tec21 model.

The initial difficulty was the distinction between PBL, PrBL, and CBL because if we solve a project, isn’t it a challenge? Or if I have a series of problems to solve or practices, isn’t it a challenge? At first, the professors involved could not distinguish between the three pedagogical models. However, studying the fundamentals of CBL allowed them to establish that the main difference is the degree of uncertainty of the educational activity. In other words, in a PBL, the professor knows the steps to follow in the elaboration of the project, he also knows the deliverables, the products and, usually, the educational experience ends with a presentation of results that can even include a prototype. In the case of PrBL, both practices and problems have a solution beforehand or are repetitions to reinforce the knowledge of a specific didactic technique. CBL, however, is a didactic technique where the degree of uncertainty is maximum, that is to say, the challenge is known but not its solution, nor the path to solving it. Normally, the professor is not an absolute expert in the subject and requires a multidisciplinary interaction to be able to carry out the process to solve the challenge. Here, the professor becomes a partner in the challenge, not only a guide but also a participant in the reflection to find the solution.

Technique/characteristics Project-Based Learning Problem-Based Learning Challenge-Based Learning
Learning Students build their knowledge through a specific task (Swiden, 2013). The acquired knowledge is applied to carry out the project. Students acquire new information through self-guided learning through designed problems (Boud, 1985, in Students work with teachers and experts in their communities, dealing with real problems to acquire a deeper knowledge of the subjects they are studying. The challenge itself triggers the acquisition of new knowledge and adequate resources or tools.
Approach Students face a problematic, relevant and predefined situation that requires a solution (Vicerrectoría de Normatividad Académica y Asuntos Estudiantiles, 2014). Students face a problematic, relevant, and usually fictitious situation which does not need a real situation (Larmer, 2015). Students face a problematic, relevant and open situation that requires a real solution.
Product Students are asked to generate an outcome, presentation or execution of the solution. More focused on the learning process than in the outcome of the solution. (Vicerrectoría de Normatividad Académica y Asuntos Estudiantiles, 2014). Students are required to give a solution that can result in concrete action.
Process Students work on the assigned project in a way that their approach generates products that will enrich their learning (Moursund, 1999) Students work on the problem. Their capacity to reason and apply their knowledge will be evaluated according to their learning level (Barrows and Tamblyn, 1980). Students analyze, design, develop and execute the best solution to approach the challenge in such a way that they and other people can see and measure it.
Professor’s role Facilitator and project manager (Jackson, 2012). Facilitator, guide, tutor or professional consultant (Barrows, 2001, quoted in Ribeiro and Mizukami, 2005). Coach, co-researcher and designer (Baloian, Moeksema, Hoppe and Milrad, 2006).

Fig. 1 Differences between, CBL, PBL, and PrBL. Taken form EDU Trends. Tec de Monterrey.

So, are they challenges or projects?

Training professors in CBL.

For a professor with experience in teaching subjects by contents or PBL, changing the methodology and transforming their teaching techniques to CBL is a challenge in itself. For this purpose, extensive sessions of analysis, planning, strategy, and commitments were held with tenured and adjunct professors in order to involve them in the CBL model.

But the complexity of the challenges is always the same, the answer is no. If the challenge is developed within a classroom or campus, in the school environment where many variables are in a controlled environment, the challenges are sometimes mistaken for projects.

Therefore, the team of professors at Campus Mexico City embarked on a task that seemed difficult at first: to convince leading transnational companies to participate as training partners for our students.

What does that mean?

1) That Tec de Monterrey and the training partner would be partners in our students’ development of both transversal and disciplinary competencies.

2) The training partner would propose challenges to Tec de Monterrey professors in order to establish the objectives, scope, and evaluation instruments.

3) Companies would invest in the solutions proposed by the students and professors.

4) Companies would develop a Semester i program (Experience i or Block) where there would be specialized personnel and a person responsible for each challenge.

5) A security protocol would be established, both industrial and logistical, for transportation to the plant, timetables, and scope of possible deliverables.

6) Tec de Monterrey would establish the academic programs, evaluation instruments, guide, and the responsibility of compliance with the program developed in conjunction with the training partner, and finally

7) The rules of confidentiality, intellectual property, technological development, and a collaboration agreement between the company and Tec de Monterrey would be established.

It is important to mention that most transnational companies already have a program of scholarship holders, thesis students, and professional interns, and all of them are similar in that they do not have a project or challenge assigned; students report to their superior within the plant, who acts as their immediate boss and their duties normally consist of the normal development of the daily activities of the production plant.

Tec professors visiting the plant of our training partner Boehringer Inge

So how do you convince a world-class company to achieve these goals? It is a difficult task, but not impossible for the group of professors of the School of Engineering and Sciences. We visited the production plant of one of the companies, proposed our strategy and once the objectives were accepted, we defined the challenges that had to be aligned with our students’ development competencies.

The initial experience with IDS students was planned and it was a success, as the students solved the company’s challenge under the guide of their professors, who carried out teaching modules on campus (References 1 and 2). We also designed both partial and final evaluation instruments, with presentations evaluated according to rubrics, exams based on subject content, and a checklist to evaluate competencies. Various transversal competencies such as collaborative work, ethics, critical thinking, problem solving and resilience were developed.

Our student’s challenge solving in an Experience i with a leading pharmaceutical company.

This information was published in an international scientific magazine:

  1. Challenge-based Learning: The Case of Sustainable Development Engineering at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus. Membrillo-Hernández, J., Ramírez-Cadena, M. J., Caballero-Valdés, C., Ganem-Corvera, R., Bustamante-Bello, R., Ordoñez-Díaz, J.A.B. and  Elizalde, H. (2018). Int. J. Eng. Pedag. 8: 137-144

We also started other experiences of the CBL model, for example with the Institute of Diagnosis and Epidemiological Reference (InDRE), from which we obtained outstanding results in the development of competencies and resolution of challenges, with students of the IBT career. The results were recently published in:

  1. Student engagement outside the classroom: Analysis of a Challenge-Based Learning Strategy in Biotechnology Engineering.Membrillo-Hernández, J., Muñoz-Soto, R.B., Rodríguez-Sánchez, A.C., Castillo-Reyna, J., Vázquez-Villegas, P., Díaz-Quiñonez, J.A., Ramírez-Medrano, A. (2019) 2019 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON) 617-621

We have improved the evaluation instruments for each experience and the challenges have been more complex and multidisciplinary.

Evaluations in Experiences i.

All these experiences led us to important conclusions to establish the guidelines for the new training partners, which will serve as the providers of challenges for the new Tec21 Educational Model. We have made collaborations with the companies Becton Dickinson, Covestro, Boehringer Ingelheim, which are leaders in their field worldwide. The big difference is the level of uncertainty involved in the challenges of the world’s leading companies, the difficulty of their resolution, and the level of competency development. All of this was recently published in:

  1. Challenge Based Learning: The importance of World-Leading Companies as Training Partners.Membrillo-Hernández, J., Ramírez-Cadena, M. J., Martínez-Acosta, M., Cruz-Gómez, E., Muñoz-Díaz, E., and Elizalde, H. (2019). J. Des. Manufact.

Therefore, we are ready to begin the implementation of CBL in the new Educational Model Tec21 starting in August. We already have an agreement signed with the company COVESTRO under this model’s framework.

To conclude, designing a learning strategy and having world-class training partners improves the level of uncertainty, the quality of the challenges, and the development of student competencies. All of this allows them to better prepare themselves for the work environment they will face at the end of their studies.


About the author

Jorge Membrillo-Hernandez is a full-time professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus. He holds a Ph.D. in Biotechnology from King’s College, University of London, England, and postdoctoral fellowships at the Universities of Sheffield, England, and Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.


Do you want to learn more?

Challenge Based Learning: The importance of World-Leading Companies as Training Partners (International Journal on Interactive Design and Manufacturing)

El Tec transforma su modelo educativo; será más flexible y vivencial (CONECTA)

Aprendizaje Basado en Retos (Edu Trends)


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