Project-Based Learning for First-Year Engineering Students: Design of C[O.Sub.2] Sequestration

By Neal, P. R.; Ho, M. et al. | Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Project-Based Learning for First-Year Engineering Students: Design of C[O.Sub.2] Sequestration


Neal, P. R., Ho, M., Fimbres-Weihs, G., Hussain, F., Cinar, Y., Australasian Journal of Engineering Education


1 INTRODUCTION

The accreditation requirements for the engineering curricula have introduced new insights into learning and teaching practices. One of them is project-based learning (PBL), which has only recently been practiced in engineering education (Mills & Treagust, 2003; Dym et al, 2005). Mills & Treagust (2003) compared PBL with the problem-based learning that has been used in medicine and science since 1960s, and concluded that PBL is likely to be more readily adapted by university engineering programs than problem-based learning. They reported that the main reason for this is that PBL offers students a better understanding of their application of knowledge in practice. This is precisely the thinking that today's engineering design is adapting (Dym et al, 2005).

The first project-based engineering curriculum was founded at Aalborg University of Denmark in 1974 and project-based courses made up 75% of its curriculum (Luxhol & Hansen, 1996). This was followed by some other European and US examples, and eventually by a few Australian programs (Mills & Treagust, 2003; Dym et al, 2005). Despite these developments, PBL as a major part of the curriculum is yet to be established in most of the engineering programs worldwide.

Creese (1987) investigation of several evaluations of the project-based engineering programs at Aalborg University found that graduates were stronger in team skills, communication, ability to carry out a total project and generally more adaptable, and hence more directly employable on graduation in comparison with traditional programs. A survey taken at Monash University later verified the positive aspects of PBL (Hendy & Hadgraft, 2002). In the same survey, students noted the negative aspects of PBL to be the high time demands of projects and problems with teamwork dynamics.

Teamwork is the central part of PBL. Teamwork projects help meet the goal of active engagement in the learning process. When students work together in groups to solve complex and authentic problems, it can assist them in developing not only content knowledge but generic graduate attributes, such as problem-solving, reasoning and communication skills. Moreover, peer learning takes place, during which students learn from each other while they are working together and assessing their own and each other's performance (Bloxham & West, 2004).

There are both merits and demerits of teamwork in higher education. Drawing from education, management and psychology literature, Dyball et al (2007) suggested that benefits for the students include: (i) the opportunity to work on more comprehensive assignments, thus extending learning; (ii) gaining an insight into group dynamics and processes; (iii) the development of interpersonal skills; (iv) exposure to the viewpoints of others; (v) preparing them for the "real viewpoint"; and (vi) promoting reflection and discussion. On the other hand, Walker (2001) and Spalding et al (1999) pointed out potential disadvantages of teamwork, such as: (i) interpersonal conflict within the team leading to an inability to complete the task; (ii) unequal distribution of the workload; (iii) the possibility of reduction of mental effort through shirking tasks, thus debilitating learning; and (iv) students' negative reactions to group learning experiences. Several approaches have been proposed to minimise these disadvantages such as peer assessment and training students for PBL (Willey & Gardner, 2009).

The usual practice for assessment of a teamwork project is to assign one overall mark to the group, but this can be problematic if it is necessary to assign grades on an individual basis. Since team members are in a much better position to judge individual contributions than a tutor or lecturer, it has been proposed that this function could be performed by the team members themselves (Willey & Gardner, 2009; Kommula et al, 2010); that is, peer assessment. …

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