A resource to help students learn engineering systems thinking

This project’s resources were originally developed for students of ENGGEN 303 at the University of Auckland. The project was implemented collaboratively by a team of teachers from the Faculty of Engineering lead by Cody Mankelow at the University of Auckland.

These resources might be useful to teachers of engineering systems thinking and teachers of project management.

The project was supported by the SEED Fund grants for 2017.

For similar projects, see: Writing code the visual and kinaesthetic way and Learning by writing using scenario-based questions.

Project background

Cody Mankelow explains the background of this project: “EngGen 303 is a compulsory third-year BE(Hons) course with a cohort of circa 700, expected to grow to 1,000 over the next few years. It teaches project management through engineering systems thinking. The course also addresses teamwork and sets the foundations for the following year’s compulsory EngGen 403 course, which teaches engineering students business practices. Both 303 and 403 are designed to equip students with the non-technical tools and professional skills necessary to work in the engineering field after graduation.

Engineering systems thinking is a topic difficult to teach in the conventional manner. This is because it is based around soft skills which are most effectively learnt via experience supplemented with guidance. Our current teaching model consists of lectures, tutorials, and a project-based assignment carried out by large teams of approximately 10-20 students. The project-based assignment requires students to analyse an open-ended project brief and generate an industry-style report. These reports describe the approach the students would take, a determination of the feasibility of the options they have generated, and an implementation plan. Students are often challenged by the project as they have had little experience executing the specific elements required for generating the overall report.

The EngGen 303 and 403 teaching team’s long-term aspiration is to develop an e-learning package that provides a platform for simulation/experience-based learning of engineering systems thinking. With this, we envisage a far more nuanced learning experience for students which can expose them to more variables and functions resembling as closely as possible real project development experience. In order to achieve this goal, it is important for us to test the feasibility of the tutorial exercises to achieve the learning outcomes for the students.”

Mankelow describes the project as: “an experience-based tutorial program developed for teaching engineering system thinking and project management. Overall the tutorial program was a success and well-received by students. A voluntary survey regarding the efficacy of the tutorial program received approximately 50% response rate from a cohort of approximately 700. Students rated the tutorial program effective in improving their understanding of: project management, engineering systems thinking, interpersonal skills, group work and verbal communication. Students where less responsive to the reflective writing incorporated in the tutorial program and only 31% of respondents found the tutorial program effective in improving their written communication. The course and tutorials are heavily group-based, which can make it difficult for students to assess their personal development. The reflective writing component was intended to assist students to track this development and at the same time practise and improve their writing skills. Unfortunately, the volume of students made it impossible to provide meaningful feedback to all students on their written ability. A reduction in the number of reflective essays, as well as altering the marking scheme to more pointedly focus on the quality of written communication is expected to resolve this issue.

Project reflection

In terms of feedback from the project, Mankelow reflects: “The ENGGEN 303 group teaches as a team, and this project was the team’s first attempt to formalise a stepwise tutorial program for engineering project management. As such it was a valuable learning experience and highlighted areas for improvement. For example, many students felt the finance aspect of the tutorial program received insufficient attention and should be expanded. Additionally, it was surprising that the structure of the tutorial program worked against itself in some instances. Students were asked to create briefs that they thought would be realistic. The briefs were inended to be exciting examples of engineering projects they may work on in the future. These briefs formed the basis of all subsequent exercises for another group of students in the same tutorial stream. Many students found the brief developed by their peers difficult to work with due to it being poorly defined and challenging to fit into the stepwise structure of the tutorials. This resulted in much time dedicated to understanding the intended meaning for the proposal. Many students saw this as a problem and suggested the teaching staff generate the briefs for next year. However, if more tutorial time where available these difficulties may offer an educational opportunity. Project management, while commonly taught in a linear and modular fashion is in practice an iterative and dynamic processes with no clear starting place. By providing more tutorial time for ‘brief development’ and subsequent inter-group discussion, these challenges may be used to highlight the importance of conceptual development and its written expression. Additionally, the iterative process of discussion and the development of a defined project between the teams will illustrate that project management is not linear but a continual iterative interaction between your team and the client. Finally, ~ 27% of responses suggested the tutorials could be improved by increasing the tutorial contact time, and/or replacing some lectures with tutorial sessions. Such results suggest there is scope to continue exploring experience-based learning tutorials as a model for engineering project management education.”

Skip menu