An exchange of engineering students between technical universities in the European Union and Canada launched last month, with a focus on moving from a compartmentalized teaching on engineering topics to one that is more appropriate for teaching mechatronics topics, called project-based learning.
"Project-based learning contrasts with the typical lecture approach," explains Jan Huissoon, professor of mechatronics engineering at the University of Waterloo. "In the lecture approach, you teach fixed problems with known solution. The instruction method is compartmentalized." But with project-based learning, the students are given more open-ended problems, which they have to use multidisciplinary tools to solve. "The students get information on aspects of a design as they progress in the project, and it's easy to see the connection between subject-based areas. It's a much more appropriate approach for mechatronics."
The engineering exchange program is part of a wider-ranging exchange project between the European Union and Canada called the Transatlantic Exchange Partnership (TEP). The three-year engineering exchange agreement began last month with an exchange between Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ont. and the Technical University of Liberec in the Czech Republic.
In September, SAIT Polytechnic (Calgary, Alba.) and the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, ON) will join from Canada, along with the University of Braunschweig Institute of Technology (Germany) and the University of Technology of Belfort-Montbeliard (France). In all, 42 senior-level students will participate.
The program has multiple goals, explains Huissoon. One is to give students exposure to international education, he says, but also to develop more project-based learning at the six universities. Waterloo already have a sequence of design courses in its mechatronics program, he notes, "but it's interesting to teach it through project-based learning. This is a more recent approach to instruction. Our goal is to push this approach forward."
The shift in teaching methods represents a significant change from current methods. "One of the assignments we currently give our mechatronics students is to build a mechanism to sort steel and brass nuts," explains Huissoon. The students are given a microcontroller and a box of parts and they have to figure how to make the mechanism that will sort the stuff. "The elements to create the design draw from previous subjects that they've done before. At Conestoga, they have started introducing new material [simultaneously rather than sequentially], material the students haven't covered before."
Huissoon credits Tony Martinek of Conestoga College for pioneering this teaching method, which will help introduce more "open-ended problems into our designs," which will more closely approximate the challenges students will face in the real world.