Windows down. Sun is shining. All is well on the vacation road trip -- until it’s not. An abundance of brake lights and construction barriers appear in the distance. What do I do? Exit and take the access road until I pass the problem? Exit and divert to the back roads? Or resign myself to wait through the stops and starts of traffic, since that is what my GPS told me to do? When this happens to me, I consult the map and divert to keep moving. We always want to keep moving ahead, right?
Let’s consider a different scenario, the pressure to add more projects to courses in all STEM domains. Student driven. Interactive. Real-world relevant. Innovative. These are all words that are frequently used as universities strive to embed project experiences into courses to increase engagement while preparing students for capstone design success and ensuring industry readiness. It’s not trivial to develop suitable design projects that are challenging, interesting, relevant, low-cost, and most importantly, achievable in a limited amount of time.
An example of the connections between layered projects for the Spectrophotometer design project.
One common approach is to assign projects where students follow step-by-step procedures, ensuring that projects can be completed in the allotted time, which is typically less than four weeks. Sure, the projects are completed and roadblocks are averted, but this is not optimal from the student learning perspective. It puts them at risk when they're asked to extend their concept knowledge into more difficult challenges in later courses.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could implement engineering projects more like a map, showing connections between points on the way, encouraging flexibility in navigation through concepts and smaller challenges instead of dictating the path? Students could continue moving and learning on their own without feeling locked into a specific set of points on a path to the final design destination. This is the same as choosing alternate routes to bypass traffic jams. This notion of learning complex concepts in smaller pieces and building connections between them as learning progresses is an idea that has garnered interest and application in many subject areas, as evidenced by the growth of flexible online learning sites for educators and students.
My role at National Instruments is to help educators be successful in engineering classrooms. In 2013, we became partners with several educators to test this idea by developing a pilot of an interactive, Web-based learning framework. This framework was designed to help students navigate through project resource materials designed to address the educational challenge discussed above. Using this approach, which is more of a concept map than a project recipe, students can learn to navigate their ways from core concepts, to guided projects, to design challenges, with the right level of resources available along the way.
The projects were designed in layers of challenges with varying levels of complexity. As the student navigates through the layers, they can see how the current task connects with others in the layers above and below. For example, one design challenge is to create a Spectrophotometer. A minimal amount of research reveals that this type of device is used to analyze the spectral transmission properties of a substance by passing light through the substance and measuring the level of transmission. The students easily determine that, among other things, they need to know about generating and receiving light. Beyond that, where to start can be daunting.