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Study to examine impact of industry-sponsored project-based learning in engineering

By David Schwartz
Published: May 16th, 2017

A growing number of universities have implemented first-year, or “cornerstone,” engineering design courses, and increasingly these are incorporating industry-sponsored project-based learning (PBL) in order to give students a taste of the real world. But do these programs really work?

Researchers at Penn State have been awarded a three-year, $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to find out. They will study the impact that these industry-sponsored projects have on students’ design performance, as well as their engagement with the projects and in cornerstone courses. Researchers will use the information they gather to develop an assessment tool for project-based learning programs.

Xinli Wu, assistant professor of engineering design and principal investigator of the project, said the goal of the research is to provide guidelines for educators that will make industry-sponsored PBL programs more successful, leading to enhanced student learning and higher retention of students in engineering disciplines.

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. In addition, because sponsoring company 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 industry-sponsored projects typically call for teamwork and require both project management and leadership skills. They also give students valuable 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.

At Penn State, the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs in the College of Engineering uses industry-sponsored projects in its cornerstone design course, Introduction to Engineering Design. During the 2016-17 academic year, industry sponsors included Chevron and General Electric.

The research hopes to address several challenges identified from the cornerstone class. For example because the project statements of work are new each semester, faculty may find it hard to improve their offerings — which may affect student understanding and engagement. 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 don’t yet have all the tools needed to address open-ended engineering projects.

Source: Penn State News

Posted under: Industry-Sponsored Research Week

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