1.2 Challenge driven projects in engineering education
A brief review of the history and trends of engineering education throughout the 19th century shows the driving forces that have led to an increase in challenge driven project courses in university curricula. Harwood (1) argues:
“Over the last few decades engineering education in several countries has been under fire. In France industrialists complained during the 1990s about the lack of practically oriented engineers while in Britain a decade earlier the Finniston Report (and others since) voiced similar discontent. In the USA during the 1990s staff at many engineering colleges debated how best to reform undergraduate engineering education. For some academics the issue was how to bring education closer to industrial needs; for others, foremost among them Eugene Ferguson, there was serious concern at the decline in graduates’ design-skills. In each case critics complained that engineering education had drifted away from an earlier practical orientation, becoming increasingly irrelevant to actual needs.”
Parallel with the debate on what skills and knowledge the engineers that we are educating should gain and for whom, there has been a growing insight into how and when students learn and gain the most from their university studies. One main distinction in students’ learning strategies was shown by Marton & Säljö (2) in the 70s; while some students in certain situations, adapted a surface approach to learning and tried to memorize in order to repeat what they were reading, other students tried to understand the material in order to explain and apply it in new situations by adopting a deep approach to learning. This distinction has now been investigated further and tested in many fields, including engineering education. (3)
Key aspects for encouraging a deep approach to learning are: student perception that deep learning is required, a motivational context, a well-structured knowledge base, learner activity and choices, assessment based on application to new situations, interaction with others and collaboration. (4)
Critiques against traditional engineering education argue that the first years of studies are teacher-centered in order to handle large student groups, that students are provided with papers and books to read too often that the teachers have chosen, and that the assessment tasks show low variation in concepts and ideas. Traditional approaches tend to emphasize root learning and covering material, while diminishing the value of conceptual understanding, creativity, interaction and independency among the students. (5)
Different initiatives and reforms have been developed to address the two challenges described above : that engineering education isn’t really as problem-oriented as it should be, and that educational environments not well enough designed to ensure that students gain the best from them.
One engineering education reform initiative is CDIO (which stands for Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate) founded in 2000 by MIT, the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Linköping University and Chalmers University of Technology (6). Today in 2014 almost 100 higher educational institutions from all over the world are members. The first four CDIO requirements for the reform of engineering education are:
- The program adopts the principle that product, process, and system development and deployment - conceiving, designing, implementing and operating – are the context for engineering education. Challenge driven team based project courses are thereby a common element, in order for the students to work in a context that looks and works like their future work places.
- The education emphasizes the technical fundamentals, while strengthening the learning of personal and interpersonal skills; and product, process, and system building skills.
The integration of disciplinary knowledge and skill training is thereby a key element of CDIO.
- The learning outcomes of students in a program should be set in a way that reflects the viewpoints of all key stakeholder groups: students, industry, university faculty, and society.
- Curriculum and pedagogy are revised to make engineering education more likely to attract, retain, and graduate qualified students into the profession, without compromise to quality or content.
A common answer to the main needs for change in engineering education seems to be students working in team-based challenge driven project courses.
”There is a tendency among our students in year one [undergraduate level/first cycle] that they have the feeling that you know what you know. And that learning and the search for knowledge and information is limited to what the course books have to offer. An important part is thereby our early project courses, which early supports students to be confronted with different knowledge gaps, mental models and conceptual understanding. In authentic projects it’s not as easy to refer to phrases or equations you’ve learned. If a beam is to be cut, the students want to feel safe over the fact that they have calculated correctly. The uncertainty that arises in the authentic project works we have is an identification of the interface between knowledge and the need for more knowledge. The ability to improve your competence is strengthened by the fact that you are working in an authentic situation – in order to identify, formulate and solve problems.” (7)