Real life is messy. It’s complicated, it’s unwieldy, there is often no single right answer – and as such, it presents a huge opportunity to learn.
Problem-based learning, which uses real-world examples as springboards for discovery rather than relying on theory, is becoming increasingly prevalent as a learning tool. It turns students into self-directed, active investigators and problem solvers and hones their ability to find and apply relevant information. The technique is increasingly deployed in medicine, chemistry and also engineering, as Elsevier’s annual Engineering Academic Challenge demonstrates.
The challenge, which starts on September 10, is open for registration.
Floriane Miquet-Westphal, a research assistant and third-year undergraduate student in Mechanical Engineering at Concordia University in Montreal, explained why problem-based learning makes such a difference:
Instead of just looking at theory, you learn how to apply that theory. I’m a problem-based person, so when I started doing research, instead of sitting down and learning the theory and not knowing what to do, I was sitting down with problems. In doing that, I saw what would be useful to learn, what would be a useful piece of information to solve that problem.
That point was echoed by Jian Yi Pae, a postgraduate research student at the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). But he added that the way engineering is taught has not evolved a great deal over the past few decades:
You see a lot of the top-down approach. There is a lot of focus on lectures and seminars, which is a traditional, but not very efficient way of learning. A lot of students lose motivation half way through the course. Problem-based learning makes more of a connection with the real-world. It’s a lot more engaging.
The Engineering Academic Challenge spins that premise into a weekly series of challenges over the course of five weeks – inviting players to work together to solve engineering problems based on real situations.
Enter the Engineering Academic Challenge
On September 10, the Engineering Academic Challenge 2018 kicks off. This 5-week global challenge gives engineering professors, instructors and librarians a chance to immerse students in an online active learning experience harnessing the combined power of Knovel and Engineering Village to tackle real-world engineering problems. The challenge questions are contributed by engineering students, faculty and librarians around the world. Learn more.
Hand-in-hand with problem-based learning is developing information literacy. For students to come up with creative and cost-effective solutions, they have to be able to draw on the vast amount of engineering information out there in the world. The Engineering Challenge grants them access to Knovel and Engineering Village. This too, develops an important skill. As Jay Bhatt, Liaison Librarian for Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, explained, access to the latest high-quality scientific information is vital to understanding how to use it:
When students get involved in problem-based learning, they should end up in the problem-solving cycle. A student wants to solve a problem with a design solution, but first they must find relevant data that shows that a problem exists and needs solving. Then they must find new data to reveal a solution to the problem. That data could be coming from finding properties of materials, for example – huge datasets waiting to be discovered. Depending on the type of problem, these datasets can be interdisciplinary in nature.
Bhatt gives the example of an aircraft that fails due to the fracture of a critical component:
If a student does not do proper research, they may just replace the critical component. However, if they do an extensive search using different databases, such as Knovel, Engineering Village, IEEE Xplore or ASME, etc. they can find a particular piece of information that could be key to find the cause of the damage and assist in developing a more effective solution. That in-depth research is absolutely critical in problem solving.
Webinar series: Innovation in Engineering Education
For information incorporating problem-based learning into a modern engineering curriculum, watch our free Innovation in Engineering Education webinar series. These sessions are aimed at educators who are looking for new ways to incorporate real-world skills into the engineering classroom. Learn more.
It’s an approach that also nurtures interdisciplinary cooperation – something that is growing in importance in engineering and which is reflected in the EAC. As Miquet-Westphal explained:
The EAC gets people to work together. I see people from around the world asking each other, ‘Have you answered this question yet? What did you say?’ It gets people talking and it helps them discover different aspects of engineering.
When I started mechanical engineering, my initial thought was ‘OK, this is only about making machines or designing them.’ When I did the EAC for the first time, I found myself thinking, ‘OK, so there’s this element, there’s clinical engineering, that’t connected to what I do’ or ‘All right, I need to look more at electrical engineering.’ It drives people to discover new things.
Pei agreed, emphasising the extent to which students who developed interdisciplinary capabilities are well placed to succeed in the future:
The boundary between disciplines is getting much more blurry; you’re no long looking at problems in a single dimension. That’s something that Knovel helps with – it can give you a quick overview on things that aren’t your specialty. That’s important. For future engineers, success will rest on being able to work across several disciplines.