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Project-Based Learning in Engineering

Christine Enowmbi Tambe - Aug 30, 2021

Introduction

Often, graduates are unprepared for real-world problems or the industry expectation that they will have to combine and coordinate technical and scientific knowledge, problem solving abilities and social skills when faced with a challenging situation to come to a decision. This has been proven to be a result of the graduates’ background as they usually come from traditional academic cultures which are teacher-centred.

The teacher-centred approach promotes passive learning; emphasis is placed on memorisation with limited opportunities to apply disciplinary knowledge to appropriate real-world problems. As a result, some graduates may show procedural expertise with little understanding of the relationship between concepts and principles at play in these procedures. In addition, the action-reflection-action cycle, responsible for knowledge creation and/or testing, is absent in traditional teaching methodologies. This necessitates changes to the curriculum design and teaching strategies to promote deeper understanding and critical interaction with teaching content.

Solution

Several strategies have been proposed to overcome the shortcomings of traditional instructor-centred approaches, most of which require a shift to student-centred and active learning environments. As stated by Russel (2018), ‘learning from personal experience tends to be more powerful and lasting than being told about it.’ However, it should be emphasized that, ‘students learn by doing, but only when they have time to reflect’ (Ambrose et al., 2013). Therefore, the heart of learning is found in reflection with the focal point being practical knowledge gained from experience.

Action and experimentation stimulate reflection which is an analysis of the situation provided and an evaluation of the decisions made. Reflection occurs before, during and after an experience with the result being a deeper understanding that can be applied to future experiences. The nurturing of reflective practice in a collaborative environment is recommended to understand other perspectives and critically assess practices. One suitable approach for introducing active and reflective learning in engineering is to implement project-based learning (PjBL) strategies.

Project-based learning (PjBL) places students at the centre of knowledge application in professional activities that involve some problem. These situations trigger reflective practice in students, allowing them to put theoretical knowledge to practice. It also promotes active involvement in the teaching-learning process and is often complemented with lectures to provide prerequisite knowledge. PjBL has longstanding roots in science teaching practice. Recent emphasis has emerged in engineering, in part, due to the call of industry stakeholders to equip graduates with required skills including problem-solving, communication, teamwork, and decision-making.

There are several successful examples of PjBL implementation in institutions globally, the most well-known being the project-based engineering programme of Aalborg University of Denmark. PjBL strategies have also been implemented in individual courses in different engineering degrees in UK and USA. In most cases, further development of students’ competencies was achieved.

Project-based learning Case study

Miranda et al. (2020) describes an eight-month-long multiple case study of a Project-based learning proposal successively implemented in two civil engineering modules with similar contents at the University of Cantabria (UC), Spain: a compulsory final year module called Geotechnical Works with 30 students and a second-year course (Geotechnical Engineering: Foundations, excavations, and tunnels) with 11 students. In both implementations, students worked in groups to design a small-scale deep foundation. With the guidance of the teacher, the designed prototype was built using a 3D printer and its effectiveness tested by the students. Each group delivered an oral presentation of the results in English. The teacher assumed the role of a facilitator; providing clarification of the project, guiding students to resources to orient/reorient their work, returning ideas to be rethought, etc. This is a shift from the traditional instructor role where the teacher oversees the learning process, revealing the correct answers which are incontestably accepted.

The first implementation was evaluated at the beginning and the end of the first four-month period using open-ended and closed-ended questionnaires to improve the second implementation which was evaluated in the same way. A semi-structured interview was performed with five students individually following the completion of each project. The teacher of both modules was also interviewed to probe further into issues outlined in the questionnaires.

Measurable Impact

Participants unanimously agreed that the main teaching strategy at the school of Civil Engineering was lecture- or Masterclass-based and that they needed more experiential activities such as the one they had experienced. There were tangible benefits to student learning and professional development following the implementation of the PjBL proposal. Students were able to develop active and experiential learning; applying theoretical knowledge to challenging situations of practice, reflecting, making decisions, and applying ad hoc strategies to solve the problem. The designs presented by the groups showed sound judgement and good application of new and previous knowledge indicating a deep understanding of the subject matter congruent with student perception.

With no one solution to the problem, students were able to develop their creativity and innovative abilities. As the problem was created to adequately represent the challenges experienced by engineers in real life, students were able to deeply understand and appreciate the complexity of professional practice. By collaborating with their peers, students reported that they had to integrate other perspectives. They also developed oral communication skills in a foreign language, and managerial skills in delegating responsibilities.

The teacher responsible for the development of the PjBL proposal stressed that a pressing challenge to its implementation was its novelty and the complexities involved in its integration in the curriculum which had always followed a traditional teaching approach. The second challenge was the bewilderment experienced by the students at the beginning of the project as they needed to reflect on previous knowledge and apply engineering judgement. These initial adversities are normal and fundamental to unleashing the intended reflective activity. Miranda and co-authors (2020) provided the following guiding principles and suggestions for future implementations in other institutions:

  • Begin with a small project before proceeding to reforming individual subjects and the entire curriculum.
  • Consider and plan for the processes involved in a curriculum change at the university.
  • Immerse students in sufficiently real projects even referring to legal regulations. If possible, use real industry partners.
  • Insert significant distinctions in the work schemes of different groups to introduce novel aspects, avoid redundancy and copying.
  • Equip students with project management tools such as portfolios, project plans, forums, etc., to ensure collaboration is productive.
  • Use debates instead of presentations to encourage discussion and joint analysis. If possible, include industry partners in the panel to assess their work and provide ‘real world’ feedback.

References

[Source] Miranda, M., Saiz-Linares, Á., da Costa, A. and Castro, J., 2020. Active, experiential and reflective training in civil engineering: evaluation of a project-based learning proposal. European Journal of Engineering Education, pp.1-20 DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2020.1785400

[1] Ambrose, S.A., 2013. Undergraduate engineering curriculum: The ultimate design challenge. The Bridge, 43(2), pp.16-23.

[2] Russell, T., 2018. A teacher educator’s lessons learned from reflective practice. European Journal of Teacher Education, 41(1), pp.4-14. DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2017.1395852