Developing Engineering Students' Understanding of Sustainability Using Project Based Learning

Margaret Jollands, Raj Parthasarathy
2013 Sustainability  
Project based learning (PjBL) can be an effective approach to developing graduate attributes, but it depends on how it is implemented. Chemical Engineering of RMIT University has a stream of PjBL subjects from first to final year. The projects are incrementally more complex but have the same goal: to choose a best process design, using management decision making tools to justify their choices. The tools include GEMI Metrics Navigator TM . This paper reports an evaluation of whether students'
more » ... hether students' understanding of sustainability is enhanced by undertaking multiple projects, as well as use of sophisticated analysis tools. Student learning outcomes from intermediate and final subjects were compared using ConceptMaps and a focus group. The students' understanding of sustainability increased substantially from 2nd to final year, similar to results reported in European studies. The spread of results was broad, attributed to range of student ability and differences between student cohorts. Development of understanding of sustainability was attributed to undertaking multiple projects and use of spread-sheeting tools. Use of the GEMI tool was identified as facilitating application of sustainability principles to process design decisions. Concept maps are a useful way to evaluate innovations in teaching sustainable engineering. Keywords: sustainability principles in design; project based learning; decision making tools; concept mapping OPEN ACCESS Sustainability 2013, 5 5053 1. Introduction Project based learning (PjBL) is an educational approach well placed to develop engineering graduate attributes [1]. This was the driving force behind the renewal of the four year bachelor Chemical Engineering degree at RMIT University in 2003, introduced in 2005, based on other successful engineering programs running at that time in universities such as Aalborg University, Denmark [2], and University of Queensland, Australia [3]. A stream of PjBL subjects runs from first to final year, one per semester, instead of the more traditional approach to have a single capstone design project in the final year. Each project is more complex than the last, broader in scope, more detailed in context, with a focus that reflects the concurrently taught traditional technical subjects. Just in time lectures and workshops are run on relevant technical topics and generic skills respectively, to develop technical and generic graduate attributes. A study of learning outcomes of a small sample of the first graduates from the renewed program found that the program developed some attributes very well. By self-report, graduates recognised the benefits of undertaking PjBL subjects as well as vacation work, to develop project, time management and communication skills, as well as confidence and systems thinking. Their skills in these areas were confirmed by their managers. However, other skills were not so well developed. A few of the graduates-and their managers-reported a skills gap in terms of problem solving and report writing. The major short-coming in about half the graduates was a lack of understanding of ethics [4] . A variable outcome from a PjBL program has also been reported elsewhere. A pan-European study compared sustainability subjects in technology universities and found that outcomes were variable even for problem based learning (PBL) subjects. It concluded the most effective pedagogy for students to learn about sustainable development was a community-based project with collaboration of multiple learners as well as use of a constructive-learning pedagogy. PBL was the second most effective, although PBL was not explicitly defined. The outcomes for subjects using a PBL approach were variable, although the authors did not comment on the possible causes [5] . A recent meta-study of PBL sheds more light on the variability. It sought to identify if the variability derived from -the PBL method employed, the discipline of the intervention, the problem types used, or the assessment level of the outcome‖. It classified PBL methods in terms of -(1) the complexity of the problems, (2) the focus on teacher or student centered learning and (3) the order of problem and case and information presentation‖. The study found that the effectiveness of PBL programs depended on the discipline, assessment type and the problem type. More favourable outcomes were achieved with closed-loop PBL, assessment based on principle combined with application, and a problem type that was a design problem. Available data were not sufficient to check for interactions between variables. Differences on these points accounted for -a large amount of variance among the findings‖, which correlated with variance in the way PBL was implemented [6] . Hence, although PBL is a pedagogy favoured to develop graduate competencies, much depends on the way it is implemented, and more work is needed to ensure learning outcomes across the full range of competencies. In addition to the uncertainty about the most effective PBL approaches, there are particular difficulties with teaching sustainability. There are few professional development opportunities for staff, relatively few teaching resources, few reports in the literature on how sustainability is taught in engineering
doi:10.3390/su5125052 fatcat:jlzwfymoefh6bcfpt3kpej2g5e