2.3 Choose and formulate project tasks
As described by Kolmos et al (13), there are three different types of projects in educational settings. In the first type, the case/task based project, the discipline and the problems as well as the methods are decided in advance. The teachers/supervisors in a case/task based project plan and control the projects. The second type, the discipline based project, means that students have the opportunity to choose/define the problem while the discipline and the methods are decided in advance. The teacher/supervisor manages the learning process. The third type, the problem based project, differs from the other two in that the problem is the point of departure and the problem will guide the students to appropriate disciplines and methods. In problem based projects, the students have to take responsibility for their own learning and the teacher/supervisor has a less active role.
Students working on solving the problem with traffic and congestion, OpenLab.
The courses exemplified in this guide are inspired from all of these different approaches, since some have more open tasks while others have pre-defined tasks for the students. In some cases the tasks come from external partners, even then they can be both open-ended as well as more well-defined. There is also a balance between having a focus on the product on the one hand, and/or focusing on the learning on the other hand. Prince and Felder (14) conclude that ”A trade-off exists between instructors being fairly directive in choosing projects, which helps maintain a focus on course and curriculum objectives, and allowing students the autonomy to choose their own project formulations and strategies, which increases their motivation”.
An Example from Communication System Design illustrating well-defined project tasks from external partners: In this course, project tasks are formulated by external clients, e.g. Karolinska Institutet (KI), Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) and Tanzania Commission of Science and Technology (Costech). The assignments cover challenges as “Community Health Portal – a community health portal is to be established with entries for health workers, patients, selected relatives of patients and the general public. The purpose is to provide e.g. health and drug information, guidelines, decision and drug management support” and “Extension of the Serengeti Broadband Network – the main technical challenge is power supply, the solution has to be as power-lean as possible and has to use solar power and innovative energy storage”.
In this course, the students get rather well-defined assignments including the aim to construct products/devices/computer simulations. This course is more in line with the case/task based approach, even though it contains elements of the problem based approach, e.g. students having to identify their own learning needs (13, 14, 15).
An Example from the course Open Lab illustrating open-ended problems from external partners: The City of Stockholm, Stockholm County Council and Stockholm County Administrative Board provide students with open-ended challenges, and the stakeholders do not expect a product in the end, rather proposals for solutions to complex social issues. Examples of challenges to be investigated are “Traffic and congestion - One of the single most significant challenges is increasing access to the transport system while minimizing the climate impact of the traffic sector” and ”An ageing population - By 2015 more than 20 percent of the EU’s population will be above the age of 65. The number of people over 80 in particular is growing rapidly. Older people have special healthcare needs and the system needs to be adapted to be able to provide adequate care while being economically sustainable”.
In this course, the students have to specify the problem formulation and methods by themselves. Thus, this course has similarities with the problem based project approach. (13)
An example from the Degree Project in Biotechnology: In this course, the projects are suggested by the researchers working at the department and they also define the specific project tasks to be performed. The projects are conducted in the research labs at the department. An example of a projects is “Massive Parallel DNA sequencing – future methods to obtain a human genome in 15 minutes” and some of the defined tasks in this project are “analyze the opportunities for a sequencing service; suggest an area where a sequencing service would be appreciated; what technologies are needed; propose a commercially interesting application”.
An example from the course Future of Media: Each year, there is a specific theme that focuses on a current area in media technology, e.g. “Future of News”, “Future of Magazines”, or “Future of computer games”. Each theme has its specific problems and they are formulated through a process in which the students are very active. The idea is that the students will be more motivated if they can choose what kind of project they are going to work in. The first step contains a writing task when students are asked to write an essay on the relevant topic. The essays inspire the teacher when ideas for projects are formulated. In the second step, a list of projects is published online and the students vote for up to three projects they think sound interesting. This is followed by a seminar when a list of about 25 projects, the ones most voted for, is presented and the students can choose which project they want to discuss and brain-storm ideas for. The discussions and brain-storming lasts for about one hour and then the students present their ideas to each other. In the third step, the students make a first, second and third hand choice. This process means that students get a chance to influence the projects and also to think through what they want to do during the project course. Examples of projects in the theme “Future of News” are “Geographical information system for media orientation”, “Newsify – customized news feeds” and “Crowdopolis – a citizen journalism portal”.
+ LINK: http://futureofmedia.se/news/projects/
An example from the course Integrated Product Development: In this course, there is cooperation with the industry when it comes to setting up the projects. All the projects are initiated by a company, both large and small companies. The aim is for the projects to be useful in society and preferably to meet societal needs. Examples from one course set are: “A pallet sleeve in metal that fits our steel pallet” and “dust suppression equipment”, both from small companies. A student explained: “When the assignment comes from a company, it gets more realistic. Since they need our solution and probably will use it, you put more effort into your work. But when it comes to the learning process, I don’t know whether there are any advantages.”
An example from the Degree Programme in Design and Product Realisation: All the projects in the programme are open ended. When it comes to formulating the tasks, it can be difficult to find tasks from companies that suit projects in first, second and third grade, therefore the tasks mainly origin from teaching staff. However, in master level courses, the project tasks often come from industry. In a sense, there is a progression when it comes to the connection to industry with a stronger connection as regards project tasks during the final years of the programme.
Suggestion: There is a variation in the courses described regarding whether they have ill-defined and open ended real-world problems or clearly defined assignments for the students to work on and whether the projects are formulated by teachers or by external partners or industry. Prior to deciding upon the challenge/project task, start with the intended learning outcomes of the course as described in the next paragraph and decide how to balance between focusing on the level of the result of the project work and the level of the learning. If you have external contacts that can provide you with challenging project tasks, use the intended learning outcomes as a backdrop when you decide upon the exact formulation of the tasks. If you, in your course, have an intended learning outcome similar to “Handle technical problems which are incompletely stated and subject to multiple constraints”, the challenge should be formulated in a manner that opens for the students to decide for themselves how to approach the problem.