Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Experiences from Adopting a Situational Learning Course Structure

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Experiences from Adopting a Situational Learning Course Structure

Article excerpt


Professional engineers, in addition to their technical competence, have always required a wide range of interpersonal skills to be successful in their work. This is more prevalent today where further challenges in environmental, climatic and long-term resource issues need to be carefully addressed. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that faced early in professional life to meet the demands of an ever more competitive and social society. It is here that universities (Mills & Treagust, 2003; Demel et al, 2005; Bammann et al, 2005), and in this case the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Adelaide, are responding by developing these skills at an undergraduate level.

Situational learning is a learning methodology in which students not only gain technical competence but also the attributes desired by graduate employers. In situational learning practices, students are placed in realistic scenarios to solve the types of problems encountered in the workforce. Importantly, they learn to recognise the techniques required to provide a solution, and then to study, learn and apply the technical skills required. This learning methodology encourages students to consider a wide range of factors when solving problems, to make realistic decisions and then to reflect on the project outcomes. It differs from project-based learning, though, in that it is aimed at learning technical skills as in lectured courses, rather than applying previously learnt skills to develop the outcomes and documentation required for a specific engineering project.

The success of implementing a situational learning approach in the Structural Analysis and Design course is discussed in this paper. Student feedback responding to the implementation of a situational learning approach is examined and questions arising from this are highlighted together with a means of addressing them.


Structural Analysis and Design is a level III subject that introduces basic structural aspects of civil engineering to mechanical engineering students. The intention of this course is to provide mechanical engineering students with an understanding of other branches of engineering that they may encounter during their career.

In 1995, when Author 5 commenced teaching the subject, the teaching method was "chalk and talk", supported by transparency overheads with a focus on how to understand and do the sums for structural steel and reinforced concrete members.

By the turn of the millennia, when student numbers had increased to 85 and at one stage 150, it was recognised that interpersonal skills needed to be incorporated in the Structural Analysis and Design course, and that the course needed to be made more applicable to mechanical engineering students. Recognising the range of work mechanical engineers have been involved with, five major topics--the design and analysis of timber, steel, aluminium, road pavements and reinforced concrete structures--were included, but with an orientation towards projects mechanical engineers were commonly involved in such as the construction of pipe and tank systems, and in the case of aluminium, a yacht mast.

While such a range of topics seem impossible for a single course, it was presented on the basis of gaining a familiarity, but with sufficient understanding, such as would be appropriate to an industrial situation. To do this, a "design manual" was produced, which was based on the idea of the dot-point notes a working engineer might jot down. Of course dot-point explanations were incorporated, but the biggest challenge was to reduce the incredible amount of technical documents and standards into a practical workable size for the students. Importantly, the design manual, in being a technical reference document, not a set of course notes, was set out to encourage students to use their own initiative and to encourage discussion with others, perhaps adding their own comments to aid understanding. …

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