Developing professional skills through authentic learning and assessment: Engineering Communication
Keywords: scratch cards, SPARK, Engineers without Borders, authentic assessment.
Faculty: Engineering and IT
Number of students enrolled (Autumn session): 494
Engineering Communication is a first year subject and the first core subject that all undergraduate engineering students complete. The subject focuses on developing students’ professional skills related to communication, project management, innovation, finance and commercialisation. It includes a range of topics that apply across all engineering disciplines.
Over the 11-week session, there are three classes held in a large lecture theatre. The remaining classes are tutorial-based workshops with 30 students in each. Students attend lectures during weeks 1, 2 and 11, and tutorials throughout the entire 11-week session. Students do the post-enrolment language assessment (OPELA) before the subject, to allow them to be streamed into tutorials that provide an appropriate level of support for their English communication skills.
Engineers Without Borders Project
In week 2, an invited speaker from Engineers Without Borders (EWB) addresses the students in a lecture class. The speaker introduces students to their project work through a traditional lecture using slides and pictures. The information from this lecture feeds the tutorial classes, where students collaborate in groups to a practical EWB project. Students are also introduced to the EWB organisation, which they are encouraged to join, and participate in online discussion forums as members of that particular community.
Structure of classes
Each of the classes is structured in two parts. The first 1.5 hours comprises of a module on a particular topic (e.g. speaking and listening, report writing, academic literacy, etc). For these modules, students are encouraged to sit next to peers they are not directly working together with on the group project. In the second part, students practice applying these skills in an authentic group project, which they complete as part of Engineers Without Borders. In this part of the class, students collaborate in a fixed group throughout the session.
Each module has a beginning, middle and an end, where students complete pre-tasks, participate in collaborative activities and complete a reflective journal. For example, one of the modules focuses on questions like “What is the structure of an engineering report? How is an engineering report different from other types of reports?”
In the pre-class task for this module, students are asked to read different kinds of reports (e.g. a scientific report, lab report, medical report, engineering report etc), and are given a list of specific observations to note as they read these different reports. In a tutorial class, students work through seven or eight smaller collaborative tasks.
In the last 10 minutes of the class, students fill an individual reflective log with questions such as – What aspect of today challenged me? What happened? Why has that happened? What might I do differently in the future? (Based on Kolb Cycle).
Types of pre-class tasks
There is a range of pre-class tasks for students to complete prior to lectures and tutorials. These may include readings, an exercise or a quiz, or other online task. Students then bring their notes to tutorial classes, where they participate in activities in which those notes will be used as a resource.
Students participate in a range of collaborative tasks focusing on ways of communicating. Collaborative activities may involve presenting and offering feedback on ideas in pairs, a small group sharing ideas around a table, or presentations and discussions involving half of the class, the whole class or the year’s cohort. Students also collaborate in groups of 4 to 6 in their Engineers Without Borders Challenge.
Using Scratch Cards in lectures
Setting up requires that students complete a pre-reading task (e.g. about the evolution of engineering). In class, the Scratch Cards activity then uses four multiple choice questions. Students are invited to interact with each other, and cards are distributed to groups of 3 or 4, as the lecturer shares the first question on a slide in the large screen. Students discuss their response together, and decide which answer they will scratch (a, b, c, or d). Other topics for collaborative discussion focus on the notion of professional engineering practice, through questions that encourage thinking beyond just the technical aspect of the profession, focusing on the social impact of engineering and what makes for successful practices. The idea here is to highlight the importance of good communication to students.
SPARK is used twice throughout the session. The first activity is a trial run, which happens about halfway through the session, where students are invited to consider how well their team is collaborating and if all team members are contributing equally. At the end of the session, students use SPARK again but this time they get a SPARK factor, which is a multiplier on their task. If they get a SPARK result of 1, their mark will not change, but if they get more or less than 1, on this SPARK activity, their mark may increase or decrease respectively.
The SPARK activity is about the efficient running of the group. It is used as an incentive for students to work on their collaborative skills, and also to encourage professionalism and ways of offering feedback. Engineers Australia requires that engineers are able to give and receive feedback. So if a person is not performing well in a group, they have the right to know.
Why do we think it's successful?
The Engineers Without Borders project encourages students to think about the social side of engineering. They are asked to address a community problem in a third world country, while considering the social impact of their proposed solution – for example, what may happen to two isolated communities if a bridge is constructed to connect them. Through their participation, students reflect on the practical and social impact of engineering.
Sharing the pedagogical reasons for a task
The Scratch Cards activity is used as a way to tune students into the teaching and learning practices in this subject, showing the importance of doing the pre-class activity - “yes, if you read [the paper] you will be able to participate”. This activity is introduced at the very first class of the subject, as students get together in the lecture theatre. The activity uses a fun gaming element, to introduce the topic, but importantly, to discuss the importance of their own participation – what each person brings to a discussion, or to a collaboration, if they have not done their part.
Encouraging participation and feedback
Many first year students can be reluctant to speak in front of others. The scaffolded activities in this subject are designed to help students to develop skills and confidence, alternating everyday scenarios (e.g. list the five steps to cook a pizza) with scenarios that are specific to engineering work. Students also reflect on the activities they experience each week, considering why or why not they work.
The varied group arrangements also stimulate different ways of communicating, starting in small groups, which gradually build up to various larger arrangements, and in the final lecture in the course - where students in groups complete an oral presentation before the whole cohort.
Photo credit: Chris Shain