Publication Details

Stappenbelt, B. (2009). Establishing a project based learning environment for first year engineering students. E-BLA Experience Based Learning Australia Conference (pp. 411-416). Brisbane: Australian Association for Engineering Education.


A project-based learning environment was recently established for first-year engineering students at the University of Western Australia. At the focus of this educational approach was a real international development project run within the core undergraduate unit Introduction to Professional Engineering. Students embarking on the professional development component of the engineering degree were traditionally taught about the role of the engineer, social and cultural engineering considerations, the multi-disciplinary nature of large engineering projects and team working and communication skills with minimal involvement in project and group work. The various concepts covered were treated primarily on an abstract theoretical level. Despite the lecturing involvement of a number of prominent practicing engineers, students were generally left with little sense of the relevance or importance of the material to their professional careers. Prior to the introduction of project-based learning, student engagement and their perception of the educational experience in the foundation unit for their professional development were very poor. The adoption of a project-based learning approach for the first-year engineering curriculum is particularly well suited to engineering education since a large proportion of professional engineering work is conducted through projects. Engineering students are also predominantly active learners and are therefore well suited, as a group, to experiential rather than passive and reflective style learning environments. Throughout the establishment and maintenance of the project-based learning environment for the large student group (n≈650) enrolled in first-year engineering, a number of logistical challenges were encountered. These include the essential requirement to commence with a suitably designed project, the education of the teaching staff in the learning approach, sequencing of the release of information to students through workshops, demonstrations, lectures and tutorial activities, controlling student access to resources and laboratories and the use of self-paced online supplemental material. The project-based learning approach adopted resulted in numerous benefits from both an educational and institutional perspective. Amongst the educational improvements observed were enhanced student engagement and perception of the learning experience, greater depth of learning, student networks and relationship development and improved team-working ability.

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