Applying Narrative to the Delivery of the Ill-Defined Domain of Manufacturing Systems to Undergraduate Students

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1 INTRODUCTION

The relating of stories to students is not something one immediately associates with undergraduate engineering education. If questioned about likely fruitful areas of application for stories and narrative in education most engineering lecturers it appears would point to the "Arts folk over there", the "English Department" or perhaps "the Education Faculty across the road".

Many engineering education practitioners with whom the topic of narrative has been discussed are of the opinion that 'stories' sound too downright vague and woolly to be a useful pedagogical tool in the fact-based, determinate engineering science subjects they teach. This may or not be so. In the opinion of the author it is probably not true and the issue of narrative applied to determinate topics will be the subject of future research. This present paper discusses the application of narrative to another type of domain met with in engineering: ill-defined domains such as engineering management, operations management and engineering ethics. An ill-defined domain was categorised by Lynch et al (2006) as one in which there is a "lack of a systematic way in which to determine if a proposed solution is optimal", and by King & Kitchener (1994) as one in which "problems cannot be described with a high degree of certainty or completeness".

Problems in these domains are typically solved using heuristic, or rule of thumb, methods since the data are often vague, contradictory and perhaps out-of-date. There are generally many ways to go about solving the problem and many possible answers. This multifariousness demonstrating what Ferguson (1992) called "the incalculable complexity of engineering practice in the real-world".

2 THE PROBLEM

For courses containing topics from ill-defined domains, the consensus in the literature on the suitability of the didactic pedagogical approach is clear: it is held to be unsatisfactory and the topics are not taught adequately in this manner. Commenting on university courses in manufacturing, Sanderson et al (1997) said that "the type of analysis, modelling and decision-making required to integrate manufacturing into real-world applications are beyond the scope of traditional lecture and textbook materials", while Dessouky (2000) wrote that "traditional pedagogy in manufacturing [courses] is ill-equipped for the task". Woolf et al (1999) maintained that "new tools that go beyond simple classroom lectures are desperately needed in [manufacturing] engineering education" and that many students in manufacturing courses are "bored, uninterested and unmotivated, particularly when enrolled in their one, required, 'show-and-tell' type undergraduate course dealing with manufacturing processes". Jackson & Muckstadt (1994) pointed out that "not all students are well served by the serial, abstract presentation style... that characterises most engineering programs. Some students need a context in order to grasp topics."

Laurillard (2002) made the interesting point that traditional "describing" pedagogy provides "a second-order experience of the world". With no first-hand experience of the domain being studied to draw upon, students may well create inaccurate cognitive models of the concepts within it. An example of this "second-order" effect is in evidence in the manufacturing systems course under consideration. Each year, in a factory planning and layout exercise, a number of otherwise generally competent students make basic errors such as placing the visitor reception area at the rear of the site or the despatch department in the middle of the building with no access to an outside wall or van dock.

At the University of Auckland, the traditional didactic method of engineering course delivery for Manufacturing Systems courses gave rise to a number of unsatisfactory outcomes. These included: producing generally low levels of student engagement; low levels of student motivation; a failure to impress upon students the integrated nature, or inter-connectivity, of the topics covered; and a continuing reluctance on the part of students to accept the validity of approximate solutions to problems. …