How Project-Based Learning Takes Education To A New Level

Project-based learning. What does that even mean? Is it something that’s assigned to me? Does it come with midterms and finals? Does it take place in the classroom? How would it even benefit me? Fear not, the Career Development Center has answers. We recently talked with Raechelle Drakeford, Director of Industry Relations for the Integrated Engineering program, about project-based learning and what this type of education is doing for engineering students and companies.

What’s a simple definition of project-based learning? Well, for the Integrated Engineering program Drakeford summarized it up for us:

“The educational model is that we emphasize innovation and creativity, design and experimental techniques, modeling techniques, and collaboration. Students learn traditional engineering technical knowledge and skills in an environment where they work with industry members on real life design projects. We focus on integrating technical and professional knowledge and competency. We really incorporate industry principles into our program as part of the curriculum so some of those examples, from a professional perspective, would be we teach our students how to interview, how to put resumes together, and about ethics and temporary issues. We’re really striving to teach and build a holistic engineering graduate. The three principles of the program are the technical competency, the design competency, and professionalism.”

Project-based learning is taking the classroom and putting it into the real world. Engineering students have had the opportunity to apply their knowledge to design projects for major companies in Minnesota, including Xcel Energy. Classes that using project-based learning as an educational model tend to be smaller, hands on, and more mentor-oriented. Students appear to take on more responsibility for their learning because they are in control, for the most part, about exactly what, how, and how much they learn.

What kinds of projects have the engineering students taken on? Last semester four Integrated Engineering (IE) students worked on a project with Parker Hannefin in New Ulm, MN. These students were tasked with the project of creating a test bench that would measure gear backlash and they succeeded in developing a method that hasn’t been developed yet in the specific industry. To get an idea of how much work went into it, here’s what they accomplished. They worked on it for two semesters, they were responsible for procuring and machining all of the parts, collaborating with the client to have internal parts shipped, required to measure the test bench for accurate measuring and testing for certain tolerances, shipping their end product to the client, ensuring it was implemented properly, communicating with each other and the client, and more. And oh, they came up with a patent-able idea in the process.

There are only three or four engineering project-based learning programs in the whole country and this program, which is brand new to the Twin Cities and Mankato area, has been received with nothing but delight. The outcome and feedback has been nothing but great, but it isn’t exactly easy. Drakeford says, “The feedback that we’ve gotten from students is that it’s a hard program. It’s really intense and students have to work hard at managing their time well. But when students graduate from the program, and even while they are in it, they love it. They love the small size. They love the hands on experience. We often get students who transfer who didn’t do well their junior year, but they come to us and they thrive because they really like the hands-on experiential mentorship model we offer them. They thrive here in this environment.” Not only do the students love the program, but so do employers who are delighted and pleasantly surprised by the outcome of projects that are developed and the students that have come from this unique program.

Where are the IE students now? Some have continued their education and are pursuing Ph.D.s and many are employed by companies that they worked on projects for or for partners of the IE Program. Project-based learning programs have the ability to teach students the technical knowledge of their field and how to apply it in real life situations. When asked about the importance of project-based learning in engineering fields Drakeford responded that she believed it was at least as equally as important if not more important than traditional learning.

Project-based learning isn’t something just for engineers though. Many majors require students to apply their knowledge to real life projects. The College of Business has the Integrated Business Experience, Music Industry majors have to complete Project Development, Dental Hygiene students train in the on-campus clinic, and students in the College of Education complete field experience. All of that experience can be added to a resume and really set students apart from others in their field.

But back to engineering. If any students are interested in getting involved in the Integrated Engineering program they should contact Rebecca Bates who can talk to them about credits, requirements, expectations, applications, admission, and more. “We were a startup engineering program started in 2013,” stated Drakeford, “and we’re really gaining momentum. This is a niche program for Mankato that really differentiates Mankato from other universities.”  So if you want to take your engineering education to the next level make sure to check out the Integrated Engineering Program!

To learn more about project-based learning: click here.

To learn more about the Integrated Engineering program: click here.

To access career resources and advice straight from the Career Development Center: click here.

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