HERDSA 2012: Integrating concepts across common engineering first year courses

I attended a talk by Dr Andrew Guzzomi on “Interdisciplinary threshold concepts in engineering”, where he talked about University of Western Australia’s reconfiguration of their first year common engineering program in the face of their new 3+2 course roll-out across the University. Most Unis have a common engineering first year that is the basis for all disciplines. This is usually a collection of individual units each focusing on one discipline, developed and taught by academics from that discipline. For example, civil engineers teach statics, mechs teach dynamics, but there is no guaranteed connection or conceptual linkage between the two areas. This is despite the fact that statics is effectively dynamics with some key variables set to zero. (Engineers, you may now all howl in dismay!)

This work looked at what the threshold concepts were for engineering. These threshold concepts are transformative, in that if you understand them it will change the way that you think about the discipline, but they are also troublesome, they need work to teach and effort to learn. But, in theory, if we identify the right threshold concepts then we:

  • Focus teaching, learning and assessment activities
  • Renew otherwise crowded curricula

This is a big issue as we balance the requirements of our students, our discipline, our professional bodies and industry – we have to make sure that whatever teach is appropriate and the most useful (in all of the objective spaces) thing that we can be teaching.

Dr Guzzomi then discussed the ALTC (Australian Learning and Teaching Council) project that supported the basic investigation to conduct an inventory of what all groups considered to be the core threshold concepts. UWA was the case study, with an aim to reducing a guide for other educators, and to add back to threshold concept theory. This is one of the main contributions of the large-scale Australia-wide educational research support bodies: they can give enough money and influence to a project to allow change to occur.

(I picked up from the talk that, effectively, it helped to have a Chair of Engineering Education on board to get an initiative like this through. Even then, there was still resistance from some quarters. This isn’t surprising. If we all agreed with each other, I’d be shocked.)

The threshold concept identification required a very large set of workshops and consultative activities, across students and staff both within and without the discipline, starting with a diversification phase as concepts were added, and then moving to an integration phase that rationalised these concepts down into the set that really expressed the key threshold concepts of engineering for first year.

The implementation in Syllabus terms required the implementors to:

  • Focus teaching and learning on TCs
  • Address troublesome features
  • provide opportunities to experience variation (motion unit taught using variation theory, when students work at indiv tables, doing different problems at different tables but pool similar answers for comparison to show the difference in approach and answer)
Then developed concept maps for each unit, showing inclusion, requirements and examples, used with, dependencies and so on.
This was then turned into a course implementation that had no lectures at all: courses were composed of four individual units that had readings, tutorial-like information sessions and 2 hour studio session that comprised practicals and more interaction sessions. I did ask Andrew about the assessment mechanisms in use and, while they’ve been completely rebuilt for the new course, they are still reviewing these to make sure that they exercise the threshold concepts appropriately. (I’ll be sending him e-mail to get more detail on this.)
Their findings so far are that these concept identification exercises have revealed the connections between the disciplines and the application of the same concepts across the whole of the discipline. Three concepts were identified as being good examples of concepts that have a reach that spread across all disciplines (integrating threshold concepts):
  1. System identification: where you work out which system he problem fits into to allow you simplify analysis
  2. Modelling and abstraction: where quantitative analysis is facilitated through translation to mathematical language and students use judgement to break system into salient components for modelling
  3. Dimensional reasoning: Identifying the variables needed to describe a complex system – making sure that equations balance.
The conclusions were relatively straight forward:
  • Rather than a traditional and relatively unlinked common foundation, teaching integrating concepts is showing promise
  • Threshold concepts provided the lens and developed approach to integrated disciplines
  • Teaching through variation supports student diversity in solutions
  • This approach reveals connections across engineering disciplines beyond those in which they later chose to specialise
UWA and U Melbourne run a very different degree program from the rest of us, so it’s always interesting to see what they are up to. In this case, there’s a lot going on. Not only have they done a great deal of surveying in order to find the new threshold concepts upon which their courses are now built, but they’ve also completely changed their teaching style to support it, with much greater use of collaboration and team work. I’ll be very interested to see some more follow-up on this after it’s run for the full year.


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