Review: #EconTEAching Session 16: Incorporating Project-based Learning into Engineering Education, by Cloda Jenkins (UCL)

I was really excited to hear that our great colleagues from the award-winning UCL Integrated Engineering Programme were joining us for a cuppa and chat at our 16th EconTEAching seminar on May 26th 2021. I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination but I have spent most of my career, as an advisor in the utilities sector, working on projects with engineers, lawyers and economists. It has always been insightful for me to work across disciplines and I knew we were in for a treat, hearing about how project-based learning approaches are used in engineering. Whilst we might not build bridges, pylons or sewerage treatment plants in economics we certainly work on projects on a daily basis, in teams, inside and outside academic environments. John Mitchell and Fiona Truscott did not let us down, sharing their pedagogy and practical ideas in a way that we can relate to and learn from for our teaching and assessment practice in economics. Much of what they discussed was relevant to campus-based teaching. They did continue the projects they discussed when delivering teaching online in 2020/21, and noted it was tricky but not impossible to replicate the ‘hands-on’ nature of projects. 

The discussion started with clarification on what project-based learning means. John and Fiona emphasised that it is about active and authentic learning techniques, where students connect to the type of work that a professional in the discipline would be doing. As engineers typically work in teams, project-based learning is structured around group work. In contrast to problem-based learning, where students focus on finding an open solution to a problem, project-based learning has a defined outcome with students asked to design or develop a specific deliverable. This can be framed in the context of a big challenge, for example designing a solution to reduce pollution in the River Thames. 

Project-based learning is central to the overall philosophy of learning in the Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP), enabling opportunities to connect across modules and year groups. Students are involved with projects from their first term in first year, all the way through the degree within and outside modules. The whole-programme approach was adopted to ensure that students learnt about the process of designing and delivering a project from the start, rather than this experience being isolated in a final year dissertation for example.  

In the first year, Engineering Challenges involves 700-800 students working in pairs on project scenarios over an intensive week, complementing what they do in their modules. The students come from a mix of disciplines, across 7 or 8 different Departments, and work on the same scenario. These scenarios are generally linked to areas the faculty are working on in their research and/or UCL Grand Challenges (eg, Global Health). In contrast to coursework or exam questions, the same scenario can be used over multiple years as the focus is on the process that students follow. For instructors, there is an upfront cost to coming up with and writing the project brief, testing it out with students and refining it but once it is established the main time commitment is mentoring the project teams. 

During the project week there are no lectures and staff are heavily involved with supporting students. Given the nature of the role, and the scale of the cohort, there are 50 members of staff (mix of lecturers and PGTAs) involved from across the Departments. Quite a bit of scaffolding is provided to students, to reflect the early stage in the degree. Students are given prompts on how to approach the scenario and checkpoints to ensure they keep on track. Staff are essentially on call for the students they are working with and it can be a full on, but rewarding, experience.  

One benefit of the project week is that grading and feedback happen during the same week so the assessment workload is time limited. The assessment is a mixture of a presentation and an output relevant to the nature of the project. The output includes a description of the results of the project, explanation and justification of the design process and explanation of why things worked or did not work. Marking criteria are the same across different projects.  

There is peer feedback, using the Individual Peer Assessment Contribution (IPAC) tool. John emphasised that care needs to be taken with peer feedback as each student’s perspective of what a good level of engagement is will be influenced by their individual expectation and how important the mark is to them. 

In the second year, students work on a How to Change the World project, with the brief set by a client asking for help with a big challenge. This is the ninth project that students will have worked on by this point in their degree so they are ready for a different experience relative to being thrown into the deep-end in first year and the structure and support is a bit more hands-off. Undergraduate Teaching Assistants play an important role, providing reassurance and recent lived experience to the students. The UN Sustainable Goals provide a frame for the projects, with external partners narrowing down the specific challenge to something relevant to their work. The partnerships have developed over the years, building on research relationships that the Department of Engineering already has with companies and connecting to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers projects. The Department will also reach out to companies that they see doing interesting work and have relationships with relevant academic experts across UCL. IEP staff work with the industry partners, for example making adjustments to briefs to ensure they can work in the time students have.  

John and Fiona noted that leading project-based learning activities does not come naturally to all lecturers or PGTAs, although there is a lot of enthusiasm and support for the approach. The mentoring, coaching, cheerleading and facilitation skills involved are very different to what is needed to deliver a good lecture experience from behind the lectern. Training PGTAs to support the undergraduates is particularly important. Currently, they get a 2-hour training session where they work on a project themselves and get insight on what their role is as guiding support for the students. Undergraduate TAs have the benefit of remembering the experience themselves and can lean on this personal experience. Generally, staff like to be involved and commit to it ‘as extra’ on top of their workload because they find it fun. No one has to be involved if they are not comfortable. 

Similarly, not all students like team work, or at least the idea of it. However, John emphasised that as this is how they will need to work after university it is important that students get experience even if it is not their preference. First years, inevitably, are confused and overwhelmed but by second year students are more comfortable with what is involved, are familiar with the marking criteria and understand it does not matter if things don’t work out. The impact on student learning is hard to measure given the learning outcomes are broad as it is the experience that matters and that will vary by student. This can open up regulatory challenges. Conceptual knowledge improves but that is not tested in other assessments so is hard to measure. The projects certainly complement and support taught elements of the programme. The speakers also noted that it is hard to evidence the fact that students enjoy the project-based approach, particularly as satisfaction measures like NSS scores pick up on wider issues that students are unhappy with and overshadow what they value on the ground in the degree. 

In terms of logistics, students are generally assigned to projects in the programme. This can be in pairs or in groups of up to 12, although the preference is for around six people in a team. Assignment to teams is random, with a check to ensure that there are no uneven groups such as a team with one woman and the rest of the team men. Initially students are given no training on how to work in teams, with staff assuming that students would just know how to do this. Over time some training has been offered. This includes, for example, encouraging groups to have discussions about how best to work together, building on Gallop Strength Finders. It helps having projects through the programme, with students learning by doing in a connected structure rather than doing projects in isolated islands. 

The session ended with both speakers providing top tips for those considering project-based learning.  

  1. Be as creative as you like because students will respond and rise to the challenge.  
  2. Recognise that it is really hard work (easier to lecture) but the value and enjoyment come from getting to spend time with students and seeing them move forward. 
  3. Be prepared to fail. 
  4. Be adaptive, make it up on the hoof and don’t overthink it. 
  5. Don’t micromanage and limit the scaffolding you give to students. 
  6. Students are resilient and forgiving if you are in the journey with them. 

Having reflected on the seminar, it is clear that the approach to project-based learning in the UCL IEP degree has many elements that lend themselves to economics education. Applying economics theory and empirical methodologies to global challenges is what we do as practitioners. Giving students scenarios or big picture questions as consultancy or policy questions provide an excellent opportunity for students to do this within their degree. Establishing big picture projects at programme level, across modules and years, and setting aside concrete time for it is particularly attractive. This allows for lecturers to focus on teaching the concepts and tools and provide the groundwork for projects, whilst allowing students and staff to concentrate their efforts away from the classroom when focused on the projects. There would be work to do, I suspect, identifying how to capture the spread of fields and topics in economics into cross-programme projects but I’m sure the same issue arises in engineering. Alongside the integral learning element of the project work, skills are also developed in team-work, thinking on your feet, project management and time management. All crucial for doing well in a degree and preparing for any future career. 

Thanks to Prof Chaudhury (Chair), John and Fiona for an excellent discussion. 

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