Development of “Real World” Project Skills for Engineering Students

Development of “Real World” Project Skills for Engineering Students

Aaron S. Blicblau (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia (ESER)) and David Richards (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/ijqaete.2012010101
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This work investigates the possible relationship between project results at first and final years of an engineering course for the same set of students to determine appropriateness of final year projects in a working environment. To determine if any significant prediction was applicable a multiple linear regression analysis model was applied to all sets of data. The analysis of results indicates that there is no significant correlation between grades from first year projects and final year projects. In terms of predictability of performance, exposure to first year projects is more of an initial adaptation to a teaching and learning environment. It is less of a suitable predictor of grade performance in project work in final year. For students to do well in their final year project, a period in industry greatly enhances their independent learning skills resulting in an overall enhanced learning experience. The major benefits to students in their final year project are in professional and personal areas, such as improved abilities to formulate, solve difficult problems and gain skills with independent learning.
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Learning may be considered as an activity incorporating discovery and independent scholarship processes (Carlile & Jordan, 2005; McKeachie, 1999). This activity is often considered as a form of experiential learning (EL), active learning (AL), problem based learning (PBL), service learning, or a variety of other descriptors (ABET, 2010; Davis, 2009; McKeachie, 1999). All these approaches cater for many different learning styles found in general society (Felder & Brent, 2005; Felder & Silverman, 1988). Engineers Australia in its accreditation documentation for engineering courses requires that graduates have acquired competency standards in the form of generic skills appropriate for their profession which are allied to research skills (Bradley, 2006; Zubrick, Reid, & Rossiter, 2001). One such application is that of project work in engineering.

It is common for all engineering courses in Australia to include a first year engineering project as well as a final year (capstone) project in the curriculum during four years of studies. In addition, at our institute, students undertake one year of paid industry based work experience often before commencing their third year of studies (SUT, 2010). Engineering final year project (FYP) usually comprises between 10 - 25% of the ultimate year of studies and at the authors’ institute is 25% of each of the final semesters. A dichotomy exists between the requirements of projects as undergraduate research and as purely engineering projects. A comparison with a science honours course is not appropriate as it is essentially a 100% research approach occasionally culminating in a publication (Karukstis, 2007; Lown, 1993; Prud'Homme, 1981; Wenzel, 1997).

Students enrolled in the FYP have a range of academic capabilities, from a bare pass to first class honors standard, which is recognized as a spectrum of student abilities (Jemison, Hornfeck, & Schaffer, 2001). The FYP is often based on real world and industrial problems, some with immediate applications, and some of an esoteric nature. It is often carried out in an environment where the student and supervisor act as junior and senior engineer, with the junior often asking for advice or discussing various aspects of the project. The project is often not empirical research, but may involve development, design, construction, or analysis or a combination of some or all of these. The implementation of the project work adds an important component to final year studies, where it tries to merge an accumulation of engineering practice and theoretical information to “...provide an experiential learning activity in which the analytical knowledge gained from previous courses is joined with the practice of engineering in a final, hands-on project,” (Dutson, Todd, Magleby, & Sorensen, 1997).

Encouraging engineering students to be researchers is difficult. In developing a FYP many difficulties arise, including the motivation and interest of academic staff – this is not just a student problem! The academic supervisor may not be an active researcher and so considers the FYP a burden, or may take the opportunity to further enhance his or her research output by involving the students (Thomson, Alford, Liao, Johnson, & Mathews, 2005). In many instances, the academic supervisor may have associations with industry, or may have suggestions for real world applications, which need to be marketed to industry. And in some cases, the project may indeed be of a pure research nature, with long term applications yet to be realized (Karukstis, 2007).

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