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Student Projects Enhance Learning and Benefit Communities

Diane Ingraham

Universities offer project-based instruction as a pedagogically sound method to enhance creativity and to promote integration of the theoretical with the practical. Generally, this comes at or after second year level when students have covered the basics. First year physics/engineering are often not able to discuss their science choices, defend a position or theory, draft coherent reports, or give public presentations. These skills must be developed and practiced to instill confidence and increase career success. This paper compares and contrasts project-oriented instruction at two types of Canadian universities where the author has initiated project-oriented instruction: (1) a large urban graduate research university (Simon Fraser University SFU) where student enrolment in engineering science attracts elite high school students; and (2) a small Canadian rural undergraduate university (Cape Breton University CBU) where student enrolment is primarily from the surrounding region.
     SFU is situated in an industrially active economic centre. In the mid-1980s Dr John Wighton endowed the Wighton professorship of laboratory studies to encourage a more hands-on approach to problem solving for creativity and innovation. CBU is situated in an economically disadvantaged region shifting from the historically significant coal and steel industry to tourism, recreation, and technology industries. In September 2004, CBU revamped its first year physics and second year engineering to include team projects complementing and fortifying theory and problems presented in classes and labs.
     The project-oriented approach was a success at both institutions. At each, students and faculty overcame significant hurdles, including: students’ inexperience working cooperatively to achieve long-term goals, crafting business-like correspondence describing their project (memos, emails, letters, proposals and reports), and their lack of confidence in public presentations. Students were successful in completing and demonstrating projects and prototypes. Examples of projects include: urban students designed and built electronic musical instruments for young persons with disabilities, exposing them to substantially different segment of society; rural students designed and built apparatus for a local rural volunteer fire department providing them with solutions that were usable, affordable, and built in the community. Rural students drew heavily on the practical skills and knowledge alive in their communities (fishing, farming, trades) to create, design and implement their solutions. Urban students drew on technological knowledge available at specialty electronics shops and industries around them. Community engagement was easier to achieve for the rural students than for urban students.
     Project-oriented instruction encourages active creative transformational learning with rewards to faculty, students and their communities.

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Ingraham worked for 25 years in the Canadian high-tech industry where she contributed to the research and development of electronic systems for handling large amounts of image data. Her research interests encompass remote sensing and multi-media presentation of data for enhanced understanding. Currently her research within the innovative Integrative Science team at Cape Breton University explores cross-boundary understanding through combining western science and traditional knowledge of small rural and Mi’kmaq First Nations communities. She has a B.Sc. (Physics) 1974 Dalhousie University, SM (Civil Engineering) 1976 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ph.D. (Civil Engineering) 1980 University of British Columbia. Dr. Ingraham held a 2-year Killam Post-Doctoral Research position at UBC subsequent to her doctorate and held the first Wighton Professorship in Laboratory Studies in Engineering Science at Simon Fraser University. She is currently in Integrative Science at Cape Breton University.