Innovating Education for Sustainable Urban Development through Problem Based Learning in Latin America

Lessons from the CITYLAB Experience

  • Tom Coppens University of Antwerpen
  • Andres Valderrama Pineda Aalborg University
  • Kelly Henao Columbus Association
  • Stijn Rybels University of Antwerpen
  • Daniel Samoilovich Columbus Association
  • Nina De Jonghe University of Antwerpen
  • Heillyn Camacho Aalborg University


This article discusses the challenges and opportunities identified in the implementation of the Citylab project in Latin America during the period of 2015-2018. The project was funded by the Erasmus+ Key action 2 programme of the European Union. The project aims to innovate teaching for sustainability in higher education institutions through Problem Based Learning (PBL). Opposed to traditional teaching methods, the pedagogical approach of PBL is a learner-centred approach that takes a complex problem as point of departure instead of existing established knowledge. Since application of such learning methods is limited in Latin America, the Citylab project attempts to introduce PBL in the existing curricula of 12 Latin American universities through the implementation and development of interdisciplinary Citylab modules focusing on sustainable urban development.

First, the role of PBL in education for sustainability is discussed in a broader theoretical context. Second, the goals, implementation strategies and results of the Citylab project will be presented. Third, we highlight some critical issues and success factors experienced during the project. The findings of this paper are based on (1) self-reported questionnaires from the partners at the end of 2017; (2) on-site visits by the authors and expert visits; (3) focus groups, interviews and conversations with project leaders of the participating institutions during the project.

Depending on the institution, the project results were varying in terms of innovation and upscaling potential. Critical factors were related to the role of the project leader in the organization, the flexibility of the implementation and cultural differences. Internal regulations created both incentives and disincentives for participation. Competitive elements in the project and available resources for equipment can act as stimulators in some cases. The challenge lies moreover in detecting windows of opportunities for change in order to accomplish curriculum reform and by doing so, pursue continuation of the PBL approach after the project’s horizon.

Special Issue: PBL for Sustainability and Sustainable Cities