Energy Science & Technology is a second-year, third semester, subject for Applied Physics and Nanotechnology students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MaPS) in the UTS Faculty of Science. The subject was redesigned to include an authentic assessment task in the form of authentic meta-study research projects to create an experimental underpinning of the predominantly theoretical thermodynamics contents as well as to offer an opportunity for the formal, early development of a range of graduate attributes.
Raising the level of authentic learning experiences helps transform the way theoretical concepts are taught
Dr Jurgen Schulte from SciMERIT (MaPS) joined forces with Scott Abbott and Kendell Powel from UTS ePRESS, Jackie Edwards from UTS Library, Dr Adam Morgan from UTS IML and Rebecca Cherian from UTS Printing Services to create a challenging, truly authentic assessment task.
Here is what Dr Schulte had to say about the motivation to introduce an authentic assessment task in this theory heavy subject.
What motivated the idea?
In almost all disciplines in tertiary education there are certain theoretical concepts and problem solving skills that need to be taught at an early stage to build the foundation for the more in-depth applied or advanced material taught at a later stage. This theory heavy material, albeit often presented against some imaginary applied background, can still be very much detached from the application in daily life. Naturally, this leaves the student learning experience more on the side of the accumulation of disciplinary knowledge, in some cases rote learning without reflection, with limited insight into how in detail the theory finds its way into the working routine of discipline practitioners in today’s work force.
This thought started the idea of creating a more interesting learning experience by introducing a learning activity that reflects as closely as possible a task in an existing work environment with all consequences attached to the execution of the task that one would normally experience in a real workplace.
How did you find such an authentic task?
Not many academics have a background in industry and thus have to rely on a more or less desktop view of a workplace in their associated industry. I am fortunate to have worked in industry before coming to UTS. Nevertheless, with the theoretical subject at hand and the resources at UTS potentially available to support the introduction of an authentic learning experience in a sustainable way, I decided to create an authentic replicate of one of my own workplace tasks: an academic researcher conducting research in a team in a particular area, disseminating research results in a peer-reviewed journal and presenting findings in a public presentation under the scrutiny of my peers.
There is a whole lot of work involved in conducting research and publishing the results as many of your colleagues would know. Not to mention that this is all to be done within a single teaching session.
How did you implement this?
This authentic assessment task is meant to complement the theoretical disciplinary concepts covered in lectures, not adding additional formal disciplinary knowledge.
To make it possible for second year students to engage in authentic disciplinary research and to create new knowledge for the discipline body which can be published professionally in a peer-reviewed journal, a meta-study approach to research has been taken. At this stage in their second year of study, students’ capacity to compete with professional research is still very limited. However, in a meta-study approach students have an opportunity to apply their current knowledge to cutting edge research. Students can research the outcome of peer-reviewed, published research, identify gaps and patterns in the published work and produce new knowledge based on their findings.
The process from identifying a research topic narrow enough such that it can be completed within ten weeks to formulating a research hypothesis, gathering research data, extracting new non-trivial knowledge from it and writing a professional research paper and get it published is rather complex for someone who has never been engaged in such work before.
We needed very careful scaffolding for building up the additional skills (and graduate attributes) required to complete the task and the authentic infrastructure surrounding it to make this possible. This is where UTS ePRESS, UTS Library, UTS IML and UTS Printing Services come in. So, students not only engage in a professional, authentic project task but the execution of the task is situated within the infrastructure of a real working environment with all its constraints and expectations attached to it.
So, this sounds like students had to not only interact with you and satisfy your criteria for this task but also had to interact with third parties and meet third parties’ constraints and requirements, just as if they were in a real workforce already, i.e, an academic researcher at UTS.
How is everything pulled together?
Each small team of students selects their own research topic, researches methodologies and outcomes of peer-reviewed publications in the field, applies knowledge gained from the theoretical concepts covered in lectures to formulate a research hypothesis and ultimately produce new knowledge in a meta-study approach and endeavours to publish their findings professionally in a peer-reviewed journal.
The UTS Library trains and guides students through the process of the initial literature research, and makes original research papers for further study available to them. UTS ePRESS makes students familiar with the professional publication process, the attention to detail required for this, the peer-review process involved in this and the tight chronological framework that professional publication is subject to. Conducting research is usually a team effort. The more efficiently a team can work together, the quicker mistakes come to the surface and the quicker new knowledge can emerge. This is where UTS IML comes in. UTS IML trains student teams in team management and team maintenance, an essential part of securing good outcomes in this authentic project task. UTS Printing Services scheduled the journal printing around their normal business schedule to ensure the very fast turnaround required for this task.
A peer-reviewed open access student journal (PAM Review) has been created for this authentic project task with UTS ePRESS as the professional publishing house. The journal is fully indexed and all papers have their own DOI. For many students in this subject, having their paper accepted for publishing in this journal will be their first professionally published paper and their first citable professionally recognised activity in their CV (see below for journal impact statistics).
There is quite some logistics involved in making this all happen.
How did it all turn out?
Students really needed to understand their research topic content in order to conduct a meta-study and write a professional, peer-reviewed paper. ‘There are ways to pass tests without understanding but this way we have to understand’ as a student pointed put in one of the focus groups. Of particular value was the sense of ownership over the research project that students felt. This was a major contributor in lifting the level of the student learning experience. ‘[I] enjoyed the self-managed learning the most, as I feel information I’ve collected during this project will have greater “staying power” than it may otherwise’.
Many of the students identified the value of learning to work in teams with responses including ‘I have also learned a lot about being a leader and making sure everyone is on the right track, but in a positive and encouraging manner’.
In general, students found it quite difficult to get their head around the process of conduction professional research and publishing the results. In many cases it took several weeks for students realise that the game has really changed, i.e., professional work is required and past study patterns no longer apply. To help students to gain a full understanding of the project tasks involved and the various stage they are going through, with the help of a UTS Learning & Teaching grant (2017) we have created a mini-documentary which over several weeks followed students’ and teachers’ experiences in this subject as they progressed through a complete cycle of one session.
The lasting value of the work for students and the value of their research outcome is demonstrating in the international success of the UTS ePRESS journal (PAM Review) where their papers are published. The journal went online for the first time in 2015. Since then the original research that these third semester students produce resulted in over 17,000 unique word-wide downloads in 2016 and over 21,000 downloads in just the two months past the completion of the autumn 2017 session.
Dr Jurgen Schulte is a Senior Lecturer in the Science and Mathematics Education Research and Innovation Team (SciMerit) at the UTS School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Beijing Institute of Technology (P.R. China) and recipient of the Australian Award for University Teaching ‘Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning’.