Ever since the establishment of the first engineering courses in Australia at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1880s, one of the main features of these professional degrees has been existence of "service courses" (Selleck, 2004; Turney et al, 1991). Service courses are compulsory in various degrees, which are delivered and administered by academic staff from other departments or faculties other than those of the home degree. The place of these courses in various degrees is unique and so are the teaching and learning challenges they entail. In this paper we outline the pedagogical reform of an electrical engineering service course undertaken at the University of Sydney. Anecdotal evidence from staff involved in teaching service courses in the engineering faculty noted problems associated with (i) dealing with a mass group of students from such a diverse population, including ability, different home degrees, motivations and backgrounds; (ii) establishing the relevance of the course to the students' degree; and (iii) delivering the required curriculum within a tight time frame.
Surprisingly there is very little research that has dealt with service courses, especially when one notes the proliferation of service courses in the tertiary sector. There are a few exceptions such as Gordon (2004), who illuminated the negative attitudes of psychology students who undertook statistics who were exacerbated by the "challenges of service course delivery" (p. 41). Students in statistics service courses have conceptions of statistics that tend to focus on mastery of material, tools and process, rather than critical thinking, and they also reported a low willingness to learn and surface approach to learning.
The lack of effectiveness of service courses appears to be unrelated to discipline or profession. Dogan (2004) concluded that students who enrolled in mathematics service courses from fields, including engineering, reported that they were "not prepared or at best ill-prepared" (p. 673). The consequence was that "they are so lost in much of the abstraction of concepts that even the simplest ideas become difficult to comprehend, and this often leads to discouragement, high stress, burn out, and, as a result, high failure rate" (Dogan, 2004, p. 675). Georgakis & Rennick (2006), who traced the history of physical education in Australian universities, concluded that a significant number of students "dropped out" of their physical education degree, especially in year 1, due to issues associated with undertaking science service courses such as biology, which students perceived as having very little bearing to their physical education degree. Fisher et al (2004) suggested that service courses have been overlooked by educational research and are therefore a prime target for effective reform research.
This lack of research into service courses has not been reflected in other aspects of engineering education where there is a burgeoning literature. In the last decade there has been rapid development in Australian engineering teaching and learning. Many of these developments have been published in the Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, which, since its first appearance in 1991, has presented research at the forefront of engineering education. Engineering researchers have acknowledged the importance played by issues such as "research-led teaching", "scholarship of teaching" and "student-centered research" in teaching and learning. The publication of such research is important to the engineering field for a number of reasons; the most important being the delivery of more effective courses and degrees, and therefore the improvement of university graduates entering the engineering profession. In recent years this focus has developed under pressure from university governing bodies, government authorities and other stakeholders. Bradley (2005) and Felder & Brent (2005) noted the impact that accreditation requirements have had on engineering education, while government funding pressures have also been highlighted (Department of Education, Science and Training, 2005). …