Solving problems with engineering

Problem-based learning is not new. It has been used extensively for professional training in medicine since the 1960s, but it has only started to gain momentum in engineering training over the past 10 years.

Problem-based learning gives students the opportunity to learn by doing rather than just being ‘talked at’ in formal lectures. They get to put their knowledge into practice and demonstrate that they have taken in the information and will be able to use it in a professional context.

Problem-based learning in engineering

The modern engineering profession requires the integration of a broad range of types of knowledge, involving a number of stakeholders in a broad range of ever-changing contexts. It is not knowledge itself that defines a successful engineer; it is the ability to apply that knowledge to delivering a successful outcome.

studying engineering students

“Right from day one of year one students are involved in practical projects”

The School of Engineering and Advanced Technology at Massey University is one of the many schools applying problem-based learning throughout all 4 years of its Bachelor of Engineering degree programme. Right from day one of year one students are involved in practical projects that require them to solve problems in a variety of different contexts.

For example…

The first project focuses on the design of an engineering solution, which will improve the living conditions of a developing area of the world. 

The chosen area last year was the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. During this project, students learn everything they can about the Mekong Delta – its people, the climate, the living conditions, economy etc. They identify a specific problem and work on designing a solution, which will work in the region. 

Overall, students enjoy the opportunity to work on real world problems, particularly in areas where they are making a truly positive contribution to helping the local people. “It’s great to see how engineers can do good things to help people in need”.

Or a stranger one…

In the second semester students are challenged to design a specific product or service that will meet the needs of people in the year 2070.  

students engineering new zealand

“Students are expected to dream a little about what the future will look like”

This requires a great deal of creativity and inventiveness. Students are expected to dream a little about what the future will look like. Although a big challenge for some students, it is a lot of fun and allows them to really think creatively.

Preparing for a career

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of problem-based learning is the emphasis that is placed on preparation for becoming a professional engineer. 

Throughout all the projects students develop those key attributes that are necessary after graduation.  These include communication, planning, teamwork, ethical responsibility, social understanding and financial awareness.

Problem-based learning makes learning more relevant; it introduces the professional aspects of engineering - and it’s enjoyable!

Professor Allan Anderson,
School of Engineering and Advanced Technology,
Massey University (New Zealand)