The use of design and problem solving with Foundation Year students

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1 The use of design and problem solving with Foundation Year students Dr Roger Penlington School of Engineering and Technology, Northumbria University, UK ABSTRACT The Foundation Year serves to prepare a diverse group of students for a range of programmes within the School. It is accepted that such students not only require a strengthening of their engineering knowledge and mathematical skills but also require preparation for Higher Education. A module based upon engineering design has been used to introduce these students to activities such as problem solving, independent working and HE assessment methods. This module was designed to encourage active learning and independent thinking through a series of exercises of increasing length where students engage in multidisciplinary activity reflecting the range of undergraduate programmes offered. This serves to encourage unconstrained thinking and illustrate a relevance of the engineering knowledge and mathematical skills developed in the other modules. This module is now to be used to examine the introduction of an electronic system to increase the flexibility of group working for students in part-time employment. 1. INTRODUCTION The Foundation Year in the School of Engineering and Technology at Northumbria University accepts a diverse group of students onto a broad range of programmes. These students are characterised by a lack of preparation for UK engineering Higher Education, for example, specific subject area weakness in prior learning, mature learners returning to education or overseas students needing practice of language and technical skills. These students will progress onto programmes in the subject areas of Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Product Design Technology, Computer Network Technology and Mobile Communications Technology. The Foundation Year is structured to reinforce the student s engineering knowledge and mathematical abilities in addition to developing their engagement with the learning process, encouraging the student to become responsible for his or her own learning. The module Introduction to Engineering Design and Problem Solving encourages active learning and independent thinking through a series of individual and group exercises which develop over the year. As a module which aims to develop the students progress towards active learning and high interaction as defined by Rowntree(1) it was also seen as appropriate to incorporate Personal Development Planning, PDP, within the core learning activity.

2 The module learning outcomes include the student s ability to; analyse a problem, break it down into constituent parts and recognise the knowledge required for a novel solution employ an interdisciplinary approach to describing the solution to electromechanical design problems demonstrate the ability to plan and control the progress of group work tackle engineering problems by thinking and describing. The teaching programme introduces some lecture sessions with short projects which extends into longer projects through the first semester. The students undertake a longer group project during the whole of the second semester. Through this both practical skills and academic skills are introduced and developed in a manner which it is hoped the students will find stimulating and which will provide a relevance for their other learning activities. 2. LEARNING ACTIVITIES The teaching programme includes tasks which are intended to allow the student to acquire new skills and also develop existing skills in a way which would allow confidence in their learning process. An example of this would be the use of an activity in which the students would explore the use of graphical communication within an initial exercise to produce a set of instructions for a familiar everyday task through to the use of simple diagrams to explain the functioning of an unfamiliar engineering device. In this way the student was operating with a hold on a familiar concept whilst exploring some unfamiliar technology. Another activity which allowed aspects of mechanics and mathematics to be discussed with the students whilst they undertook a non threatening activity was the production of card automata(2) initially seen by the students as mechanical toys their complexity was soon recognised by the students if they failed to operate as expected. An additional benefit of the students perception of these mechanical devices as toys is that they have high expectations of their ability to construct them. But they soon discover that for mechanical devices to function reliably they need constructing with care, thereby forming an ideal opportunity for key skill development. During the development towards longer and potentially deeper projects the direct relationship between the topic and the material being delivered within the engineering science component of the programme is made more explicit. An example of this is a project to construct an electromechanical device. The student is required to review the basic theory of electromagnetism and then to construct a series of devices which demonstrate these principles. The students generally start with a simple coil, being able to experiment with input power (the product of the current and voltage) and the output power, the ability to hold a mass against the force of gravity. This introduces an element of both analysis and graphical representation of results, reinforcing their mathematics. This project is open-ended, students work in small groups and have been able to construct driven devices such as an AC-DC motor generator. The students are expected to record their progress in an informal log which is also

3 used for their reflection as they will demonstrate the process of problem solving. This aspect of the module learning activity is specifically aimed at developing the students adaptation to the HE learning style and the learning outcome of thinking and describing. The whole second semester forms one large group project formed from a series of sequential problem solving activities which has been described elsewhere(3). The interrelated activities lead the student through from research into some aspects of the fundamentals of basic mechanical components such as levers, gears and cams into their application to the design and production of a servo motor powered device. A key aspect of this longer project is that the final objective of the project is not fully introduced to the students until they have undertaken the initial formulation of some basic design principles. The purpose of this approach is to try and stabilise the pace of the project, if the students were aware of the intended outcome of the project it is felt that they would be open to external influence, such as from the world wide web, thereby limiting, or short cutting, their potential for creative thought. This process was developed with the modified Cowan(4) diagram in mind, this cyclic process of experience, reflection, modified experience and further reflection is ideally suited to a 12 week project. As a typical student on the Foundation Year is new to independent learning, also possibly group working, and is at a very developmental stage of their evolution into an adult learner(4) then motivation is a key issue. As the student body progress from shorter individual projects to working in pairs and small groups of three or four they become established team members with the recognised group roles appearing. Although some reorganisation of groups by the tutor may take place the majority of groups are self selected as there are a large number of factors which influence the students decision. With the Foundation Year feeding many programmes the 50 students are formed into two classes, one for feeding the technology programmes (Computer Network, Product Design, Mobile Coms. etc.) and the other feeding the more traditional accredited Mechanical, Electrical and Electronic programmes. Initially students will form groups based upon their planned progression discipline but it has been observed that as the tasks become longer and more multidiscipline, during the longer group project, then two general types of group will form. The first type, generally containing the more focussed learners, will select based upon complementary skills and personality types and are generally very successful. The second group type, predominantly with the less confident learners, appears to form based upon complementary study patterns, often strongly influenced by their part-time working. This group which is generally less successful in outcome is the focus of some of the teaching strategy developments which are discussed below. The module has been carefully structured to incorporate student support as the biggest difficulty faced by some groups is the ability of all members to organise their study pattern around their part-time working. 3. INCORPORATED PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT PLANNING This module is primarily based upon the application and practice of knowledge acquired in the other modules. For this reason the module will have a significant impact upon the learning style of the individual student, exposing them to new learning experiences and developing

4 their key skills. To deepen the students engagement with the module several activities incorporated within the module are classified as Personal Development Planning (PDP). Topics such as group interaction, information retrieval, University assessment processes and plagiarism are introduced as part of the enhancement of key skills. Many of these activities are seen as of low significance by students traditionally focussed upon exams, and for this reason may be soon forgotten. In an attempt to engender a deeper appreciation of these topics they have been incorporated into reflective review meetings during the group activity sessions. The form of these reviews is shaped by the specific activity being undertaken but all are based upon the completion of a pro-forma. In addition to questions relating to the specific activity, for example asking the students to summarise the key findings of their research into the given technical aspect, general probings of a reflective nature are also included. An example being to request that the group discuss and record their performance of factors such as delegation of tasks, inclusively, leadership or time management. The group will then meet with one or two tutors to discuss their reflection. To conclude the meeting the tutors will complete a feedback section of the pro-forma and give the students guidance of the next stage of the activity. The students and tutors will both retain a copy of the pro-forma, this may be used later as part of the assessment process as it is a record of individual contributions to the learning process. It has been found that some topics need to be revisited several times over the year, for example plagiarism, although this may be related to the extent to which the required skill level relates to that which may have been expected in the students previous learning environment. It is not appropriate to conduct some form of diagnostic test within such a diverse module but much of the face to face student tutor contact is focussed upon building a link between the very diverse prior experiences of these students and their further learning needs in HE. 4. CONCLUSION AND PLANNED DEVELOPMENTS As described above the students on the Foundation Programme may either be classified as confident and less confident learners. The confident learners progress through their time at University with increasing confidence and have been shown to be above average in the distribution of final degree classifications. It is the less confident learners who may continue to struggle during their first and even second years who are a challenge. It is acceptable, or even desirable, when accepting a diverse intake that some students will not complete the Foundation Year, for example they may find that their priorities lie elsewhere and that University is not what they expected this is their choice. But it is the tutor s responsibility to ensure that students with the desire and ability to proceed are able to do so, even if they need further assistance in developing their study pattern. The continued evolution of this module will attempt to support the development of the less confident learners. The demands of part-time working are accepted, for example when drawing up the teaching timetable, but to enable participation in directed or independent group design work further support may boost the confidence and commitment of this second group of learners.

5 The familiar story of a review meeting with a group where one member is missing who, of course, happens to have all the paperwork is all too common. Group working is a fundamental part of engineering education, and employment, but clearly its benefits can be limited when individual members study patterns are not complementary. To explore the potential for accommodating diverse study patterns within group working, particularly to enable their supervision and reliable assessment, a electronic document sharing system is being established. The aims are to allow uninterrupted access to each groups work in progress for the group members and tutor and to provide a physical focus point for group activity. This will enable each group to establish their own working pattern and reliable means of communication if not all are present at the same time whilst giving the tutor a window into their progress. For the tutor to monitor progress, provide formative feedback, and feed resources into the project when required rather than at fixed, and missed, review meetings will allow difficulties to be recognised earlier. It will be possible to incorporate peer assessment and recognition of each students contribution through the use of pro-forma submissions which will be time stamped. It is hoped that these developments will strengthen the learning experience of a diverse group of students enabling them to become active learners, benefiting from the experience of HE and benefiting from a career in engineering. REFERENCES (1) D Rowntree, Developing Courses for Students, PCP Education Series, 1985 (2) [accessed ] (3) A Crawford, J Tennant, A Wilson. (Eds). A Guide To Learning Engineering Through Projects. [accessed ] (4) J George, J Cowan, A handbook of techniques for formative evaluation mapping the student learning experience. Kogan Page 1999

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