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EXPERT COMMENT: Project-based learning - reinventing the wheel for better employability

26th June 2019

Dr Ulugbek Azimov, Programme Leader for Automotive Engineering at Northumbria, explores how giving students opportunities to take part in project-based learning while at university can boost their employability prospects after graduation.

Whilst not the only motive for attending University, improvements to job prospects is recognised as one of the main reasons many UK students embark on a university degree.

However, figures indicate that nationally only 57% of graduates, and 71.6% of those with a postgraduate degree (aged 21–30 years), are in high skilled employment. Meanwhile 30.8% of undergraduates and 14.5% of postgraduate degree holders are employed in low skilled non-graduate jobs, and 12.2% and 13.9% respectively are either unemployed or inactive (Department for Education, 2018).

These figures show that not all university leavers are sufficiently equipped for employment, in part because they lack essential workplace skills, resulting in many vacant graduate jobs.

Higher Education institutes therefore need to embed transferable and career-related skills development within the curriculum alongside subject-specific knowledge acquisition to ensure that students improve their chances of obtaining high-skilled employment.

One way of introducing employability skills into the curriculum is by adopting a project-based learning approach, which helps students construct knowledge in contexts similar to the real-world environment.

While project-based learning can indeed be successful and exciting, it is hardly new, in fact it is a century old. So we are metaphorically reinventing the wheel for students’ future better employability.

During the project-based learning process, students initially collaborate with their group members to identify what their current understanding of the problem is and where there are gaps in their knowledge. They then undertake self-directed research, where the information gathered is applied to the proposed project.

The project-based learning approach has gained increased traction in engineering education as a means to develop important employability skills, such as:

  • using initiative and being self-motivated
  • organisational skills
  • working under pressure and to deadlines
  • the ability to learn and adapt
  • communication and interpersonal skills
  • teamwork
  • valuing diversity and difference
  • problem solving
  • creativity
  • numeracy and IT skills

The project-based learning approach is consistent with prevailing evidence that more active learning experiences lead to superior student outcomes, including improved employability skills.

An example of such a project-based learning experience, where we are literally trying to reinvent the wheel, is within the Automotive Design and Analysis module of the Automotive Engineering BEng (Hons) programme at Northumbria University.

This module involves projects in which students design, build and test various types of powertrains, engines, vehicle body and structure systems.

caption:From left to right: Dr Ulugbek Azimov with students Dominic Ho, James Taylor, Louis Langoulant, Shaun Hutchinson and Pedro Fernandes.During this year-long module, all the knowledge and skills the students learn is later used to build vehicle components and, ultimately, a complete vehicle prototype.

The module starts with the introduction of the ‘Theory of Inventive Problem Solving’ and how this theory can be used to generate new ideas when designing automotive parts and systems.

Students then engage in learning new design skills and software, while at the same time discussing in groups the future design concepts of vehicle components and prototypes to be built .

The module assessment requires the submission of an individual assignment where each student designs and numerically tests the performance of a vehicle component.

Students are assigned into groups and the advantages and disadvantages of the submitted designs are discussed, with the most suitable design selected for manufacturing. A group leader is voted for and then drafts a work plan and schedule, with realistic project milestones and deadlines.

During the project design and prototype building stage, each student is required to submit a self-evaluation report on their contribution to the project, mentioning any challenges that arisen and what has been done to resolve them.

The second main assessment component for the module involves building a prototype vehicle. Students start working in groups according to the agreed schedule with strict and realistic deadlines to complete the project tasks.

At the end of all these activities, students need to test and demonstrate the vehicle to a module tutor and other lecturers and critically evaluate how completely and effectively the project milestones were achieved.

The finished project with a running vehicle prototype will give students strong confidence that they are ready for real world engineering and bridge the gap between education and employment.

Project based learning in Automotive Engineering from Northumbria University on Vimeo.

As you can see from the selection of comments below, this is an experience students value:

Shaun Hutchinson: “This module has been invaluable in preparing me for future employment. The module was a success due to the strong teamwork skills everyone shown. Due to the fact we were under a tight schedule and had a predetermined set of regulations and criteria to follow, it forced us to get creative in order to solve several problems at hand, especially when faced with small roadblocks that weren't expected and need to react accordingly. I feel like these kind of skill sets are the most important in industry and definitely something employers look for and I'm happy this module has helped me further develop them."

Louis Langoulant: “This project for myself represented somewhat of a culmination of several modules from throughout the courses of my degree, from management, to design, and even some sustainable energy and resources work. This allowed highly topical skills for employment within the engineering industry to be put into use, and indeed the project heavily relied upon these skills to be completed. The process of initially having to amalgamate ideas to form a design which continually underwent scrutiny and revision, putting together various teams to focus on different elements of the project, and managing these teams to get the project completed in time, proved to be as much of a real world experience as one could ask for within the confines of a university degree. I suppose one aspect of the project that came as sort of by-product, was the actual hands-on experience that was had, from manually altering, maintaining and repairing an engine, to creating a template and eventually a final bodywork deign for the vehicle that was sturdy and true to the concept design the project started with. This, for myself, was the most important aspect of the project, for this was the true application of engineering in my opinion, and allowed for our own marks to be left in physical work."

James Taylor: "This project has produced more challenges than any project I have carried out previously. The project relied on each member of the team using their own initiative and perseverance in order to overcome the tasks they faced as an individual in order to allow the project to move forward as a whole, and after completing the project, I can now confidently say each member of the team did this successfully. The project threw up numerous challenges which I feel have given me invaluable experience that I can go on utilise in future employment. The project relied on the constant communication between team members to overcome obstacles in the design and budget as well as the creative differences that existed within the team in order to ultimately produce a final product that we were all proud to present. As a precursor to this project each team member produced ideal CAD designs that we each though would be suitable for the vehicle. Through the hands on approach to this part of the project we saw how manufacturing techniques, materials etc. can impact how the final product actually turns out. This is the area of the project that created the largest challenge for us and has given me a much greater appreciation of the processes involved from conceptualisation to producing the final product."

Pedro Fernandes: "This project was extremely challenging and it’s the only project I can relate that it can be similar to a real life job situation, requiring constant communication and teamwork. Team was organised in two, part of the team responsible for the engine, making sure that ECU was tuned with the engine for a smooth start and run, using data collected from several engine runs. And the other part of the team responsible for building and integrating the chosen CAD design on the given chassis. Integrate a car body on a chassis requires commitment and motivation, as there is so much that can go wrong with the consequence of putting the project behind in terms of deadline. Body and engine came together on the chassis for the last phase of this built where there was many obstacles to overcome. Extremely exciting project to work in, with endless possibilities in terms of learning experience. Nice accomplishment feeling when everything that didn’t go as planned was finally fixed and the vehicle worked as planned. The project was a success."

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