Free range engineering

by | 3 Sep, 2018 | 0 comments

The Summer Studio experience that's shaking things up for UTS FEIT students...

In February this year, 165 students took part in Summer Studio A. It’s a new six-week intensive engineering subject that sees students tackle a range of real-life design problems – from a global aerospace challenge, to a possible Vivid light installation for the Tower and 3D print technology for assistive living. What’s even more unique is that four of the 13 challenges, or ‘studios’ as they’re known, are led by experienced student facilitators. We take a look at the new offering from three perspectives: the coordinators, student facilitator and student.

Professor Roger Hadgraft and Justine Lawson – the coordinators

Summer Studio A was not the faculty’s first stab at studio learning. It was, however, a way to bring studio learning – group-based projects free of lectures – to a broader cohort. We were part of a team of more than 20 who established the studios, a task that took about eight months from initial concept development. The studios are about taking learning.futures to another level – creating active and authentic learning where students find the resources they need and work collaboratively. Too much of design in engineering is focused on the production of a technical artefact – a piece of road, a bridge, a circuit board – and it’s assumed that someone else is identifying the real problem.

We wanted to expose students to the complete design experience – identifying what needs to be solved, right through to producing a simple prototype at the end. It gives students the opportunity to look at the whole problem, not just the technical part, and that’s what industry wants. Rob Jarman’s vision, as Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) in FEIT, was to create Summer Studios that offered such a great experience that students would want all their learning to be like that. But they’re not without their challenges, particularly for those students who had never experienced design thinking before.

Traditional curricula can make students feel like caged hens. Students are force-fed information and then told to deliver a ’60 gram egg’, for example, a solution to a textbook problem. But in doing that, they become dependent on external stimuli (the teacher) to perform. The studios were designed to be more ‘free range’, to give students the independence to explore problems as they would in the real-world. At the end of the first week some students came to us: ‘Can you just tell us what you want? What’s the answer?’. But they were encouraged to persevere, using a design-thinking approach, which eventually led to them developing a range of ideas before prototyping one of them. This type of learning will become more common as the faculty implements studios in all of its programs.

As for the next round, we’d do it again in a heartbeat! We really saw students come alive in these projects.

Scott McKeon – the student facilitator

I’ve been involved in From the Ground Up, a not-for-profit in Nepal, since 2016. It grew out of a building initiative to provide homes to some of the half a million families left homeless after the Nepalese earthquake of 2015. They now run a series of projects to empower the local community – building schools, hospitals and co-ordinating construction apprenticeships. I was approached by the learning and teaching team in FEIT to see if I was interested in bringing the challenges our not-for-profit was facing to UTS students. I thought, why not?!?

As a student facilitator, my role was to set the context for the humanitarian studio and organise industry partners for weekly visits and to take part in a panel at the end of the session. More than 20 industry partners took part. To prepare for the role, FEIT skilled us up by running in-studio and problem-based learning workshops. We learned that as a facilitator you’re not meant to have all the answers. Instead, you guide the group.

Having Roger and the team on-hand for advice was amazing. He’s highly experienced in project-based learning and is passionate about students having the chance to work on valuable real-life projects. He had a lot of trust in us as facilitators and didn’t dictate what the subject was going to be about. Rather the coordinators set the context, explained what they wanted students to get out of it at the end, and that’s perfect for my working style.

As a group, my studio participants decided to break into three smaller working groups. One team focused on irrigation, another on the design of a transportable concrete mixer, and the last on waste management and the use of organic waste in agriculture. When they would come to me with questions about their proposed solutions, I could say, look you have the capacity to make a judgement, and through the design-thinking process, you’ve the tools to address it. So let’s try what you think is the best solution, you can then iterate, reflect and repeat as needed. And that’s a really useful process for engineering students to learn.

To give students a better sense of the spaces they were working with, I used video I’d taken while I was in Nepal to run a 360 video experience in the UTS Data Arena, complete with VR headsets. One of the first tasks for the group was to go away and research Nepal, to understand the culture and context of our projects. One of my students, Nat, came back to class and I could see she was just really engaged. Her passion for the project was infectious!

Natalie (Nat) Peden – The student

I chose the subject because of the range of projects on offer and because they seemed ‘real-world’. I’m a third-year engineering student so I really wanted to gain an insight into different areas of engineering before I graduate. I settled on Scott’s humanitarian studio because I wanted see how engineering could be applied in a socially responsible way.

My team took on the irrigation challenge. We needed an economically viable system that could provide Nepalese farmers with water during their dry season. The studio was a change from the traditional learning I’d been exposed to – it was a way more holistic approach to solving problems. We would talk through our ideas as a group; dissect the problem to explore new ways of looking at it. Over the six weeks, we’d present irrigation solution ideas to Scott in class and via online chats with charity representatives in Nepal, who had a lot of experience with the actual agriculture. They’d provide advice on the viability of our solutions at each phase.

This was the first time I’d had a student facilitator. It was very different. He was more of a peer – a good ‘go between’ – and as a student he helped us with our reflections. I’d definitely encourage other students curious about the studios to try them out. What we worked on wasn’t some theoretical problem, the solutions we proposed could actually positively impact someone else. That’s so exciting! To talk to someone about their problem, get their feedback and hopefully give them a solution – that gave me a real sense of accomplishment.

Something I’ve learned is that Nepal is such a complex area and the way to give charitably isn’t just about going and saying, ‘Look I know what’s best’. It’s about looking at the community, learning from them and best utilising the strengths they have to help themselves.

This post was originally published in the U:mag Learning & Teaching Edition, and is reposted here with permission. 

Feature image by Shane Lo.

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