Reflections on My Freshman Engineering Course and PBL

As we begin to study case, problem, and project-based learning (PBL), I can’t help but reminisce about my freshman year at VT. All Engineering freshmen enter under a generic major, “General Engineering,” and must pass a sequence of freshman-level courses to declare a specific major such as mechanical or electrical engineering. Two courses in the freshman-year sequence are the “Foundations of Engineering” classes. In each class, students learn elementary computer programming, computer-aided drawing, and a smidge of project management culminating in a semester-long project. I took the Foundations of Engineering sequence in 2015-2016, just a year (or two) after the courses were significantly overhauled. From my understanding, the redesign emphasized the semester-long project. In the first semester course, our team had to program a robot to track a short yet incredibly windy path. In the second semester, our team had to design a “drone” (aka a water rocket).

In retrospect, I wish those classes emphasized PBL more. It felt like we only scratched the surface of PBL and project management, which made me even more conflicted when picking a major; I didn’t know which major would cater to the environment fostered in those classes. That might’ve been by design. Because every enrolled student is a “General Engineering” major, the classes are intentionally broad to sample each major. This, coupled with the inherent dearth of material in a PBL-intensive class, might’ve proved problematic to the Foundations of Engineering instructors, and in my opinion, those issues definitely manifested themselves in the classroom.

One of this week’s readings was a paper published by Dr. Murzi Escobar on his implementation of a PBL class for civil engineering seniors. It was a fascinating to read and even more fascinating to extrapolate the results of the paper to the Foundations of Engineering courses. In the civil engineering PBL class, students worked in teams to solve a real infrastructure design project under the guidance of industry experts. Having an industry expert guide our design process would be an incredible resource to utilize as a freshman in the first-year courses. Obviously, that’s probably asking for the impossible, especially since industry titans are likely hesitant to partner with freshmen. If not industry contacts, how about faculty contacts?

Second, the paper’s results implied a lack of team organization early in the semester. Perhaps this could be addressed by stricter guidance by the instructors. I recall my Foundations of Engineering instructors set rigorous guidelines for us to follow and penalized us harshly when we deviated. While we complained at the time, I’ve come to realize our team never had any functional, organizational, or logistical problems once we overcame the initial (yet seemingly insurmountable) challenge of getting our act together. Perhaps that was the intent, or perhaps our team was just an outlier. Either way, I believe strict structure is a universally disliked but objectively important component to a highly functional team. I mean, who actually likes making Gantt Charts??

The most interesting takeaway from the paper was how communication strategies evolved over the semester. Teams were required to archive their communication logs. When reviewed, students realized they were too wrapped up in cross-platform communication. In today’s era of Zoom, Slack, Discord, GroupMe, and who knows what else, restricting communication to one dedicated channel seems to be of utmost importance. It truly is amazing how easy it is to cause undue panic by accidentally sending a message to the wrong channel/audience. Unlike my lofty “have industry partners work with freshmen engineering students” aspirations, this can be immediately implemented in lower-level classes because these communication channels are universal.

It’s interesting to see how PBL can influence a senior-level course. It’s also interesting to consider how those concepts can be extrapolated down to freshmen, who have a wildly different set of learning objectives. The one constant: every engineering student loves to see how their major applies in the real world. That’s the goal of PBL, so I’d like to study this field more to see how it can benefit students — especially in a virtual era where teamwork is heavily restricted.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on My Freshman Engineering Course and PBL”

  1. Hi Jaisohn,
    I think the last point is especially relevant, and it’s good to have some science to remind us! Especially in the age of largely-remote teaching due to COVID, it’s so easy to get caught up with all of the various technological solutions for scheduling, assessment, communication, collaboration, course management, etc. We’re probably lucky that our university has just one course management software that’s used pretty universally, at least, because regardless of any annoyances we may have to put up with in canvas, we can know that most students have the same resource for all of their classes and won’t have to spread out their attention across multiple platforms. A mantra my co-teacher and I have adopted for our course is “pick one and stick with it” when it comes to teaching-assistive technologies for exactly that reason. Consistency and structure are important right now.

    I’d be very interested to hear how you might redesign that freshman engineering project if you had the chance to teach it yourself.

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  2. I thought that was a very interesting question you posed: how can we best adapt PBL for freshmen students? Because you’re absolutely right – freshmen have different learning goals than upperclassmen. They also have different skill sets due to coming straight from high school’s incredibly structured format. Throwing freshmen straight into PBL without guidelines seems like throwing little kids into the deep end unassisted. Yes it might work eventually, but they don’t need to go through the additional anguish to come out better on the other side. I like your idea of adding guidelines, as it retains at least some of the structure that freshmen are used to, thus both easing them into PBL style learning and helping them understand what they’re meant to gain from PBL.

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  3. Hi Jaisohn! You made some really great points in your post. I’ve worked with first-year engineering courses and I agree that problem and project-based learning could be particularly useful in these classes. It would definitely be an interesting balancing act in a general engineering program when you are working with students of all different majors. However, I believe there are ways to either group students with a similar major interest to a relevant project or select a wider variety of projects and have them complete multiple. At the end of the day, the task of completing a project and working on a team towards a common goal may be more important for first-year students than the project content itself.

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