A Problem-Based Discussion on Problem-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning is at a very important position, especially in Engineering programs. In this blog, I am going to talk about a Senior Project course at my former department (Industrial Engineering) to draw the importance of factors that are impacting the success of the course. I was on the committee of that course for three years; therefore, I had the opportunity to monitor the students’ learning experience throughout the course. In a way, I will perform a Problem-Based Discussion on Problem-Based Learning.

Students of the department are required to take a senior project course which spans two semesters and get a minimum grade of C from the class to graduate. They form teams of five students, and in the summer before the start of the semester, teams are matched with the projects. The projects are ideated by faculty members of the course committee based on the problems which are brought to the department by companies (these companies vary from Mercedes-Benz and Renault to Loreal and Unilever). During the semester, student teams are required to build solutions while getting advisement from two faculty members and two collaborators from the company. In the surveys that the department conduct after graduation in accordance with the ABET accreditation requirements, students mostly state that they highly benefit from this course. They also acknowledge that this is a very challenging experience in three aspects.

Who should the students satisfy? These projects have very high practical relevance, because roughly 50% of the time, the solutions the student team builds are implemented in the company. Therefore, the team should work closely together with the collaborators to (1) understand their needs, (2) understand real underlying issues of the problem, (3) ensure the feasibility of the solution in real life. However, there is substantial academic relevance as well because the performance of the course determines students’ graduation. To ensure good academic progress, students need to deliver reports and presentations and work closely together with their faculty advisors to ensure that their approach has academic rigor. However, the students frequently report that the gap between academic relevance and practical relevance causes conflicts because it is very difficult (sometimes impossible) to satisfy both the faculty advisors and the collaborators. Collaborators just want their problem to be resolved in minimal time while faculty advisors want the students to question the problems and have a complete understanding before building a solution. Therefore, this conflict causes students to go back and forth between these two actors which is counterproductive.

How to move forward as a team? The students in the program start working on course deliverables as teams of three in the freshman year. Therefore, they get used to working together over the course of the first three years of the program. However, these groups are rather flexible, open to change, and not mandatory. However, in this project, teams are very strictly formed as 5 students to minimize the number of teams (because of the limited resource of faculty advising) and it is very unlikely to change the teams because each project is unique and requires a completely different setup. Therefore, it is very crucial to “make it work”. Usually, ad Murzi et. al. (2020) mentioned in their paper, we advise students to distribute roles clearly and keep each other accountable. However, there is always uncertainty and things do not work out as expected. In those cases, conflict resolution and communication skills come into play. If a team is formed just because the students are good friends but their working style is completely different, the team starts getting into big fights which is also very counterproductive. In fact, I observed that randomly formed teams yield better harmony in the teams than teams formed due to preference based on friendship.

What are the prerequisites of the course? The committee was not aware of the importance of this fact until there is a curriculum change. To provide flexibility to students who studied abroad, a change in the curriculum was made and one prerequisite course was transformed into corequisite. This might sound like a small change at the first look; however, the course was a one-of-a-kind course that teaches student thinking conceptually and holistically. It turned out that this class is very vital for the senior project class. Earlier, the students needed to pass the course in a semester before the start of the senior project. However, with the corequisite rule, they started taking the course while doing the senior project. Few students benefitted the situation by immediately implementing the fresh knowledge to their project, but most students had difficulty in implementation because they did not have time to completely digest the material before applying it to their project. Therefore, some projects suffered from quality. Some groups had more conflicts because they had more difficulty which caused lower productivity and less progress. This problem was expected to a certain extent when making this curriculum change to a certain extent but the consequences were definitely underestimated.

In short, despite the challenges, at the end of the semester, the majority of the students, faculty advisors, and collaborators were satisfied with the output, and students still think that the class is very beneficial because it prepares them for the industry. However, there is still room for improvement and things to consider to make the process more beneficial. I believe that team size and the method to create teams is an important thing to consider. Also, The conflicts between two parties is also a challenge, and in a case like that, if there are multiple parties involved, it is important to manage the process in a way to compromise. The committee should also work with the collaborators to inform them regarding the academic requirements that the students need to meet. Third, the curriculum design should be carefully considered because any curriculum change might affect students’ prior knowledge and impact the entire experience tremendously. Therefore, the requirements of the project should be designed in accordance with curriculum changes. I posit that careful consideration of these three aspects would help both the students’ and the program’s success.