UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Because it is recognized that design is at the core of all engineering disciplines, many colleges and universities across the nation have implemented first-year, or “cornerstone,” engineering design courses. To replicate what students will experience in industry and to provide real-world context, many of these courses include industry-sponsored projects in a project-based learning (PBL) setting.
Researchers at Penn State have been awarded a three-year, $300,000 National Science Foundation grant for “Instrument Development to Assess Design Project Appropriateness for Domain Relatedness, Ambiguity Tolerance, and Genderedness.” The project will study the impacts that these industry-sponsored projects have on students’ design performance, and their engagement with the projects and in cornerstone courses. Researchers will use that information to develop an assessment tool to use in PBL settings.
Xinli Wu, assistant professor of engineering design and principal investigator of the project, said the ultimate goal of the research is to provide engineering educators with guidelines that will make the implementation of industry-sponsored projects in PBL settings more successful, leading to enhanced student learning and higher retention of students in engineering disciplines.
“Conducting industry-sponsored projects positively impacts students’ learning experiences because it encourages them to think outside the box in a multidisciplinary context,” Wu said. “Solving real-world problems with challenges and constraints, and enhancing effective team-working and communication skills within interdisciplinary team settings give our students unparalleled experiences that are very conducive to learning.”
Industry-sponsored projects are viewed as beneficial because of their inherent layers of complexity, causing students to confront and tackle issues that go well beyond textbook examples. Because these projects are done with a company that cares about the design solution in addition to student learning, research shows that students tend to feel more motivated and are inspired to do better. The scope of industry-sponsored projects typically calls for teamwork, and the incorporation of project management and leadership skills. The projects also provide students with exposure to industry practices and cultures.
“Most engineering students will work in industry after they graduate. Students’ understanding of industry practice and culture instead of simply understanding concepts from textbooks, while still in their formative years, is vitally important. It allows them to be successful later with their senior capstone design projects, and in their future engineering careers. It puts them one step closer to real-world situations,” Wu said.
The School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) in the College of Engineering uses industry-sponsored projects in its cornerstone design course, EDSGN 100: Introduction to Engineering Design. This first-year course is taken by most engineering majors at Penn State.
During the 2016-17 academic year, industry sponsors included Chevron and General Electric. Chevron introduced first-year students to the importance of sustainability and environmental protection relating to Marcellus Shale extraction and use. The project focused on improving water and waste stream practices on well pads. GE Transportation’s project exposed students to the importance of designing in a cost-effective and environmentally conscious way. The project asked students to develop a strategy to extract Rare Earth Elements from a fictional ore deposit in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
Although there are many benefits, both faculty and students experience challenges related to running industry-sponsored projects that must be overcome. Because the project statements of work are new each semester, faculty may find that they limit opportunities to build upon and improve the project specifics, which may impact student understanding and engagement. It also tends to increase the amount of preparation needed for each project offering, although project materials developed may often be used in subsequent semesters.
For students, interest and motivation may decrease when the industry-sponsored project is not perceived to be directly related to their chosen major; if the project is thought to be too complex; if students feel that the project is skewed towards a specific gender; or if they view the abstractness and ambiguity of the project negatively because they don’t yet have all the tools needed to address open-ended engineering projects. Researchers will focus their efforts on understanding the potential impact of these project characteristics.
It’s believed that the development of an assessment instrument for use in engineering-design PBL settings, as well as better understanding of how and what industry-sponsored project characteristics influence students’ design performance and engagement, will help to address these challenges.