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Pbl definition and aims:

Suitability of Project-Based Learning (PBL) in
Mechanical Design Education
Abstract: This paper discusses the suitability of Project-Based learning (PBL) in mechanical design education.
We first introduce project-based learning and highlight its main differences with problem-based learning. We
discuss the advantages, disadvantages and highlight main obstacles in application of this approach. The suitability
of PBL in mechanical design education is then discussed by first investigating goals and typical curriculum in
such education and various aspects of implementing PBL. Reference to experience in applying the technique in
the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of British Columbia is highlighted. Brief assessment
and review of existing assessment of the approach are discussed.
Key-Words: Project-Based Leaning, Mechanical Design Education, Design Curriculum.
1. PBL Definition and Aims:
spread around the world, but mainly in medical In this paper we use PBL to indicate Project Based Learning. The discussion is largely applicable to Although problem or project based learning both project and problem based learning but we will is still far from being widespread in engineering generally focus on the use of project based learning education, it has been implemented to a limited in teaching mechanical design. Many aspects and extent in some schools. In most of its applications, outcomes of PBL (Project based learning) are PBL is practiced in a few courses in the early years similar to those found in the more commonly known of the program [1]. Attempts to generalize PBL for problem based learning approach. The discussion in the whole program have been rather limited. this paper will rely and exploit such common Examples of such attempts are the second year grounds. Although many authors use PBL as Electrical and Mechanical Engineering programs at interchangeable between the two approaches, there the University of British Columbia. In the are slight differences between them. First, one may Mechanical Engineering version, the program has note that project based tasks are closer to the reality been applied to all students and for all subjects in the and practice of professional engineers than problem based tasks. A key difference between the two In PBL, the classroom is student rather than approaches is that project based is more directed to teacher-centered. Although in the first classes, the the application of knowledge whereas problem instructor must provide some direct teaching, it is based is more directed to the acquisition of through guidance and support of student activities knowledge [1-3]. Also in project based learning, that information is delivered to the students [2]. This management of time and resources by students is, point also constitutes an extra difference between problem based learning and PBL since in the latter the amount of lecturing would be usually more enhance multidisciplinary skills using planned extensive. Examples of distinct teaching modes in problem scenarios or projects. The focus of PBL is PBL are the group tutor who works with a specific to set the curricular content around projects rather PBL group and the case study champion who creates than subjects or disciplines. Problem based learning a specific case study exercise. The tutors shouldn’t was first introduced in the late 1960s at McMaster generally impose their knowledge and standards on University in the medical school. Since then it has the group, but instead help the students explore the problem on their own. 2.2 Critical View on PBL:
are: to integrate knowledge and skills from a range It is generally agreed that PBL leads to of multidisciplinary modules; to acquire knowledge better skills in the areas of independent learning, through self-study; to enhance working in groups communication, and critical thinking. Students are and manage group projects; to develop problem more confident of their own abilities, better able to solving skills of students; to encourage self- work in a team, keener to learn and have a greater motivation, curiosity and thinking; and finally, to understanding of the practical aspects of make learning enjoyable [3]. Also PBL helps in engineering. Although PBL imposes increase in enhancing the technical curiosity of students which work load, staff have found its implementation a has been diminished by the very little contact relatively rewarding experience. Due to much closer students have with machinery and devices that they contact with students, PBL gives instructors greater opportunity to respond to at risk students.
On the other hand, PBL generally requires 2. Overview and Examination of PBL:
team teaching and integration of faculty from 2.1 The Need for Change:
various disciplines which may pose some practical obstacles. PBL requires moderate to high engineering education stems from industrial and (approximately 30-40%) increase in teaching market requirements. Today, industry is in need of resources. Because of the group projects, proper graduates that not only possess a solid foundation of means for individual students’ evaluation would be engineering knowledge, but also have good always a problem. One of the significant issues communication skills, the ability to work in a team, encountered with PBL is the 1 or 2 students in a the ability to solve problems both critically and group that may provide little or no contribution. To creatively, and a desire to learn for life. Today, address the problem a peer review is usually engineers are required to have a broader perspective required. Students should provide evidence of of social, environmental and economic issues. Other activities in the form of minutes of meetings and areas of deficiencies in engineering education personal journal [1]. If PBL is to be implemented include: time management skills; producing proper in the whole program of one year, failing students documentation; and hands on skill in shop work. The may be required to repeat the whole year. This ultimate objective is to provide industry with would add to the already critical problem of designers who are equipped with the essential scheduling and resources in PBL. To avoid this, the characteristics and skills required in real-life program may be delivered in smaller consecutive units and students have to pass these units in These deficiencies are especially apparent in consecutive order. This approach was adopted in our design. Some faculty members used to feel that implementation in the mechanical engineering students could only engage in design until they had department in UBC. It should be noted that such gone through several years of education. This approach would, however, pose more constraints on feeling has generally been replaced with the the resources and scheduling of the program. realization that students must practice design over time, and that a single experience at the end of a 2.3 Assessment of Students in PBL:
four-year program is simply not sufficient. In a PBL environment, generally each group Engineering design requires not just the analytical of students is typically expected to submit one or a competence to analyze and size components, but, more of the following at the end of each project: a also, the know-how to formulate a problem in a way design report, a working device that may enter a that is in tune with the resources at one's disposal. It competition, a poster, an oral presentation, or a web requires, therefore, knowledge of fabrication page. Groups are assessed on the ability to analyze techniques, costs, aesthetics, decision making under the problem, create innovative possible solutions, uncertainty, marketing study and negotiation skills. evaluate concepts, demonstrate and utilize prior It is this nature of design that makes it generally theoretical knowledge, show evidence of newly acquired knowledge throughout the project and, finally, use practical skills in completing the project. Usually the assessment also involves some 3. Suitability of PBL in Engineering
individual evaluation such as a short test of concepts Design Education:
related to the activity and/or a personal journal review. As discussed above, there is an element of 3.1 Engineering Design Curriculum:
unfairness in such assessment methods because the work load and the activities performed by various implementing PBL in engineering design education members of a group would be, generally, not equal. it is necessary to take a closer look at topics and Unfortunately methods to avoid this problem would aims of engineering design curriculums. As put more restraints on resources and management of discussed above, engineering design is the process the program. Some faculty members downplay this of applying and integrating various scientific problem on the basis that this is the practice in techniques and engineering science principles for the industry anyway. The counter argument here is the purpose of creating a device, a process or a system fact that in industry there exists many other methods to perform a given function. There is a certain of assessment and the different time scale in element of creativity, decision making and inventiveness in the design process. By nature, the design process is both interdisciplinary and iterative. 2.4 Assessment of PBL:
The word design comes from the Latin word designore which means to work out.
Unfortunately, there is very little published quantitative assessment for PBL programs in the Board uses the following definition for engineering literature. The evaluations that have been undertaken design: “Engineering design integrates mathematics, have been almost entirely along the lines of student basic sciences, engineering sciences and interviews or responses to open-ended questions. complementary studies in developing elements, This qualitative research has generally found systems and processes to meet specific needs. It is a students in favor of the program although they creative, iterative and often-open ended process generally believe that it adds more work on the part subject to constraints that may be governed by of the students. The limited assessment for PBL in standards or legislations to varying degrees the literature indicate that the approach significantly depending on the discipline. These degrees may improves important skills such as solving open- relate to economic, health, safety, environmental, ended, real-world problems; finding, evaluating, social or other pertinent factors” [4]. communication skills, team work and using Design may be categorized in three general appropriate learning resources. On the other hand, categories. Original design to create an original available assessments indicate that there was no gain solution for a system to perform a new task or in students’ performance on standard tests and function where both the function and the solution exams. Also, no apparent decline in student’s principle are new; adaptive design to adapt a given system to accommodate a new task or function In the area of PBL assessment, it is obvious where the original solution principle remains the that more research is needed. Proper assessment same; and variant design to vary the size, material, measures and avenues for obtaining assessments are or arrangement of a given system while keeping the required. Also, assessment of PBL graduates in the function and the solution principle unchanged. A work place is crucial to reach proper conclusion for study made in the mid seventies by the German this approach. As the practice in industry, it may be Association of Mechanical Engineering Companies constructive to consider various methods of (VDMA) showed that 55% of products are based on assessment such as final product, presentations, adaptive designs, 25% on original designs and 20% portfolios, peer reviews, self-assessments, and Fig. 1 shows a schematic diagram of various design phases with some details of various aspects in each phase. are shown in Fig. 2. In this figure, topics taught by Need Identification
less than three schools are omitted from the discussion. It is important to note that some of these topics are quite extensive and may require one or more course under the design umbrella. As an Preliminary
example is the design of machine elements which Stage &
may include design and/or selection of shafts, gears Classification
and gear trains, linkages and mechanisms, bearings, brakes and clutches, bolts and bolted connections, Conceptual Design
Survey of design topics
Detailed Design
Topic taught
3.2 PBL Assessment for Various Levels of
tation & Final
Design Education:
As indicated above, a typical design curriculum is composed of an extensive and wide range of topics. In order to deliver such topics discussed in a PBL environment, one has to design multiple projects and still provide extensive lecturing to students. This would simply render the PBL as curriculum in detail, a survey of the curriculum of regular course with intensive project type work. On twelve North American schools is carried out. The the other hand, our experience in the Mechanical objectives were to identify various topics taught and Engineering department at UBC shows that many of learning objectives. It should be noted that it is the topics in the design curriculum may be quite sometimes difficult to identify such topics in a effectively handled through a true PBL program. In curriculum and distinguish it from engineering our new reconstruction of the curriculum, we found science topics. Care has been exercised to use a that it is quite effective to deliver topics related to unified reference frame and to comply with course conceptual design phase into a PBL unit. This specification in the particular school. This is done included the design process, planning and by first obtaining a union of all design topics and management, ethics, prototyping and some basics of objectives from all schools in the survey. Each design for manufacturing. Our experience shows school is then surveyed to identify how much of the that a single project (usually ending with fabrication, union topics being offered. The results of the survey testing and competition) may be easily designed to cover all or most of these topics. Students enjoy from research on misconceptions suggest that PBL doing the project and have an effective mean to may not always lead to constructing the ‘right’ apply the above concepts. Some of our specified knowledge and hence it may or may not be useful projects have been quite successful and popular and for engineering education with regard to the their competition has been televised on local as well acquisition of knowledge that can be retrieved and as national TV-channels. It should be noted that the instructor still has to provide good number of lectures. This was done, however, in a condensed structuring an engineering curriculum is the and focused way at the beginning of the module. integration of various topics in a uniform stream. Copying the same experience in the embodiment Undergraduate engineering students normally tend design phase is, however, not as successful and to deal with each course in isolation as a separate compartment from other courses with no or little It is instructive to discuss and examine some of connection or interaction. PBL would generally the rational and discussions that led to the above eliminate this problem. A step forward in the conclusions. One of the main problems in applying teaching methodology that is close to the PBL PBL in the embodiment and detailed design phase is environment is to aggregate closely related topics the nature of the subjects covered in this phase. and courses into one super unit that would be Many topics have hierarchical knowledge structure normally co-taught and would have a project linked and must be covered in certain order and it is not to it. In the PBL implementation in the Mechanical easy to cover all (or the majority) of the topics in Engineering Department at UBC, this approach has one practical project. The hierarchical knowledge been utilized in some of the curriculum units. The structure is pertinent to most of the engineering extent of the projects and lecturing in a specific unit subjects and is probably one of the fundamental may qualify the unit as a true PBL application. obstacles for implementation of PBL through an entire engineering program, as opposed to within individual courses in the program. This is in 3.3 PBL Evaluation in Design Education:
contrast to medical knowledge where Perrenet et al. Assessment and evaluation of PBL in design [3] describes the pertinent knowledge as having a education is important at every level, from project “rather encyclopaedic structure, so the order in selection, through project and course grading, to which various concepts are encountered is not curriculum monitoring and accreditation. Most of prescribed and further learning will hardly be the engineering associations or accreditation boards do not provide specific or quantitative measures for Another important factor is the nature of design evaluating a specific program or methodology. For and the engineering knowledge and its practice example, the professional engineering association in compared for example to medicine where problem- the United Kingdom defines a list of accreditation based learning has been widely adopted and topics (e.g., knowledge, design, and analysis) with successful. Practical engineering problems are no specific level of achievements. In the United inevitably different, more complex and needs longer States, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and time to solve from those handled in schools. Technology (ABET) lists outcomes for student Problems facing engineers always vary and have training with no quantitative measures. For new elements, uncertainties and many unknowns. example, one of the ABET outcomes that is related Engineers are always required to solve problems to PBL; “an ability to function in teams” doesn’t outside of their experience and the knowledge they provide a level of expected proficiency. acquired. In addition, design and engineering In the above regard, Crawley [5] presents an problems normally have many solutions. In contrast, extensive effort for setting goals and competencies the medical field problems differ in that, there will for an engineering syllabus. Crawley’s work was only be one correct diagnosis, it will usually be done in stages with interaction and input from stake- made relatively quickly and treatments after holders such as employers, ABET and alumni. The diagnosis may vary, but will generally be selected result was an extensive list of more than 270 from a range of well-defined options. Because of competency attributes with expressions representing these facts, Perrenet et al. [3] report that “findings the expected level of achievement in a qualitative [1] J.E. Mills and D.F Treagust, “Engineering sense. This list appears to be, however, very extensive and may be impractical for the purpose of assessment. The list was reduced by Malmqvist et based learning the answer?”, Australasian al. [6] but still didn’t gain popularity and J. of Engineering Education, online publication universality of application. It is important to note that this is an critical point that needs proper attention from researchers. As in the above discussion for general PBL assessment, proper [2] J. C. Wood and L. G. Mack, “Problem-Based measures and avenues for obtaining assessments are Learning and interdisciplinary instruction”, required. Also, assessment of graduates in the work Proceedings of the 2001 American Society place is crucial to reach proper conclusion for this approach. Various methods of assessments may be Conference & Exposition, (2001). adopted from industry measures and procedures. It [3] J.C. Perrenet, P.A. Bouhuijs and J.G.M. may be constructive, for example, to consider Smits, “The suitability of problem-based methods of assessment such as quality and learning for engineering education: theory performance of the final product, presentations, portfolios, peer reviews, self-assessments, and and practice”, Teaching in Higher Education, 5, 3 (2000) pp. 345-358.
4. Conclusions:
Accreditation Board, Ottawa, Canada, The paper presented an overview of Project Based Learning (PBL) in engineering education as opposed to the common application in the medical environment. It is shown that many obstacles exist in applying true PBL environment in the engineering engineering education”, Technical Report, field. Special attention was given to the application MIT CDIO, Dept. of Aerinautics and of PBL in mechanical design education. It is shown Astronautics, Cambridge, MA, USA, that certain aspects of engineering design are quite suitable and would actually benefit from a true PBL [6] J. Malmqvist, P. Young and S. Ostlund, implementation. Other aspects or areas such as the “Setting goals for design education-An embodiment design phase are not, however, suitable for the same implementation. Discussion of the NordDesign (2002) Visions and Values in reasons for the above conclusions and a brief Engineering Design, NTNU-Norwegian overview of PBL assessment in the mechanical Univ. of Sci. & Technology, Trondheim, References:


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