Ready for Takeoff: Problem Based Learning

Aircraft taking off at DCA

Airbus A321neo Taking off at Ronald Raegan International Airport (DCA). Photo by Dr. Antonio A. Trani, 2019.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

This week’s topic is one of my favorites, maybe because I am an engineer and naturally a problem solver! I think that PBL is a powerful way of learning especially for applied sciences such as engineering because the overall goal is to develop skills to be able to solve real world problems. So it makes sense to start practicing that in the classroom instead of waiting until students graduate and go out to the field!

I would like to share my own experience with PBL in this post. In 2014 I took the Airport Planning and Design class at Virginia Tech when I was just starting my master’s degree in Transportation Systems and Infrastructure Engineering. The topics covered were closely related to real life problems and scenarios, it was very interesting to me compared to the “dry” intro class I took in my undergrad. For example, the class covered topics such as how to estimate the required runway length for takeoff. The homework problems were realistic scenarios such as:

“An airline is in discussion with Roanoke airport (ROA) to start operating a route from ROA to Orlando (MCO) using their newly purchased Airbus A321neo. Determine if ROA has enough runway length to support these flights, if not, what runway extension would you recommend?”

This kind of questions was very useful because solving it encompasses many layers of research and analysis, it allowed the students to look for information from real world aircraft manuals, weather data, and airport data. In addition, solving this problem required us to come up with realistic assumptions based on real data such as the number of passengers on an aircraft (taking into account class configuration) and the average weight of a passenger and their luggage and so forth.

My experience with this course had a significant impact on my decision to choose aviation as my area of research, work in aviation data analysis after graduation, and now work towards a PhD degree in Transportation Systems Engineering with a focus on Aviation. This shows the impact that one class and the teaching method can have on someone’s educational and professional journey!

5 thoughts on “Ready for Takeoff: Problem Based Learning

  1. Sam,
    I love that PBL has gone so far as to help you find your career path! I think you’re an excellent example of why this type of learning can be effective. It’s realistic, motivating, and teaches practical skills. I appreciate that your instructor chose a problem that required you to make use of aircraft manuals, weather data, etc. I think so many students get used to having all the information given to them that having to search for it on the job becomes a challenge. These types of problems teach so many useful skills, and I’m glad it has been beneficial for you.

  2. Transitioning from toy problems towards real-world ones should be smooth and facilitated by an expert. An educational system that only focuses on toy problems does not provide students with the required skills and self-confidence they need later on. Even worse, students in such systems are less motivated to choose a related career because they have not had the chance to know how it actually works and feels like. You are a successful case showing how motivational solving real-world problems in class is in choosing a future career path.

  3. Sam,

    I am glad you had a great practical experience with Problem Based Learning and the experience was able to leave a lasting impression on your mind, good enough to pursue aviation further. I really like how you presented a real-life example that you encountered in your area of study/research in a manner that everybody can connect. Problem Based Learning does put the students in the driver’s seat and accept responsibility for their decisions as well.

    Great Post!

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Hi Sam. I enjoyed reading your post. You provide a very good example of how problem-based learning fits well into incorporate subject matter such as your felid. I agree with you this kind of strategy presents a problem in the form of an essential question that requires students to think beyond simple one- sentence answers. The nature of PBL means reading, writing, and other subjects all get rolled in.

    Good Luck!


  5. Hi Sam! Thanks for sharing your experience with problem-based learning, it sounds like that course had a large impact on your graduate studies and view on this type of learning. I agree with your point that problem-based learning is especially relevant for engineering to help students develop skills to be able to solve real-world problems. I wish that all engineering professors were able to engage and excite students as well as your professor did!

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