Problem Based Learning In Engineering
Problem based learning is a very vital learning method for engineering students. It involves any learning environment in which a problem in discussion drives the learning approach. Generally, learners are subjected to a problem before learning is conducted. The purpose of the problem is to let the students know that, they will require learning some crucial knowledge before the problem can be solved. This approach is applicable in various engineering disciplines that would otherwise be difficult to approach if learners did not have a prior understanding of the problem.
For instance in engineering design projects, learners have to synthesize previously learnt knowledge. They then observe a new challenge and learn how the problem will be solved. Essentially, problem based learning motivates students. Since the learners have an idea of why they need new knowledge they will be dedicate to learn the new principle for their own benefit. This type of learning model also makes it easy for students doing research projects to have an easy time when retrieving the learnt knowledge to solve engineering projects in the future. The students will be skilled at problem solving and critical thinking.
With sufficient intervention from the tutor, problem based learning offers a perfect opportunity for the students to develop problem solving skills in their studies and professional application in the field of engineering. It also gives the students an opportunity to appreciate the importance of teamwork and cooperation in their critical lives (Dym, Agogino, Eris, Frey, & Leifer, 2005). In this regard, learners also discover how they can solve problem individually. Scholars often agree that problem based learning is a learning approach that has been around for many centuries. Especially in the fields of research and solution based methods, PBL will prove a very essential method than traditional methods of learning.
Origin and Development
Significant evidence and scholarly material prove that problem based learning was developed in the 20th century especially between 1960s and 1970s. The approach was prevalent in medical and health related education. Educationists suggested that passing content to students on the fields of psychology, anatomy, pharmacology and anatomy separately in a traditionally teacher centered approach was not very efficient in improving practical application of diagnostic skills required by professionals in the medical field. Similarly, the medical field was rapidly evolving and the practitioners needed to be lifelong learners with critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Subsequently in the 1980s and early 90s, more institutions in the medical field adopted problem based learning as a remedy for a practical learning approach. Although the move did not prove efficient at the time and there was no clear evidence if it did, studies showed that problem based learning was more engaging to the student (Bridges, Hallinger, & ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, 2004). They also had indications that students preferred this method over traditional learning approaches. in these formative years, students actually produced slightly better test scores in particular a practical than when traditional teaching methods were used.
In the engineering discipline the learning trend is quite different. In the early introductory years, students are taught the skills required in engineering alongside foundation knowledge. Later in their final years the students are taught using problem based learning to help in the integration of learnt knowledge, promote self- directed learning and teach them personal and group skills that they will apply in critical thinking and problem solving. Problem based learning aims to fill the gap reported by managers concerning entry level engineers in the field. Newly recruited engineers understood the book but knew very little to deal with practical and people skills. it is from this basis that PBL is used by some of the top engineering programs to produce all rounded engineers.
While there looms controversial argument over the effectiveness of problem based learning in the engineering field it is highly favored over traditional learning methods, scholars agree. Full comparisons of engineering programs that favor problem based learning to other programs that settle for approaches produced different results (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Other scholars argue that traditional approaches produce graduates with equally important fundamental knowledge in engineering sciences and mathematics. On the other hand, problem based learning produces individuals with important design skills and team working skills. It is from this perspective that we appreciate the fact that most engineering programs prefer a hybrid approach of both traditional learning and PBL.
Characteristics and Benefits of Problem Based Learning in Engineering
Problem based learning is a learner- centered approach than traditional teaching approaches. in this approach, the learners will learn to apply previously learned knowledge to deal with problems in a more self- directed way. They learn how to research on the current problem. The problem selected for learning is a critical foundation in ensuring the success of the approach. This new problem under investigation by the students must be well defined, covering most disciplines and guided by a knowledgeable teacher, since the students learn though critical thinking, one cannot definitely conclude that there is a single correct answer.
In the PBL approach learning students are responsible for their own achievements throughout the learning process. The problem allows the students to inquire freely thus creating an individual who is able to work in a team. Similarly, as stated earlier, learning should integrate many disciplines for it to be effective. The learners are taught the importance of working individually as well as collaboration. The principles that the students will identify during critical thinking are to be applied during re- analysis and alignment with their mentor. Self assessments and peer assessment should be carried out at the end of each learning session and at the end of a particular unit. Finally, the problems under scrutiny must be directly picked or related to the real world.
The real concern therefore is an evaluation of how effective problem based learning is in the engineering field. At this point it is important to highlight that unlike other fields where learning takes an encyclopedia- like approach in learning, engineering has a hierarchical structure. Mathematics, physics and other concepts in engineering require a systematic arrangement of content in order for the students to get the concepts. For instance learners have to appreciate the lessons in algebra in order to learn calculus. Similarly, in engineering a real problem is not easy to solve since there may be a multiple of solutions.
Basically, problems based learning allows engineering students to be constructive in finding solutions for real life problems. This gives them the ambience to think critically and appreciate the fact that each problem has a solution. The learning process becomes more effective as learners understand the value of working in teams and participating actively. In general problem based learning results in better communication skills and teamwork skills. It also helps the engineering students to have an understanding of their professional practice and how to apply the learnt principles in solving real problems in the real world.
Comparison Between Problem Based Learning And Traditional Teacher Centered Learning
Despite the effectiveness of PBL in teaching students in various fields it has not been fully integrated in the engineering field. However, in certain instances traditional methods actually prove effective than PBL. For instance, passing of fundamental knowledge on engineering concepts cannot be done using the problems solving approach (Prince, & Felder, 2006). This includes definitions, formulas and theories that have to be discusses by the teacher. secondly, when it is difficult to formulate a real problem for the learners to tackle, PBL may not be very effective. This is the reason why traditional methods produce graduates who understand the concepts in the books and can recite them one at a time.
However, from a different perspective, traditional methods are not fully effective when used alone (Settles, 2012). PBL on the other hand, offers a wider range of advantages. While learners using this approach may not be very coherent with the principles in the books they are much better at solving real life problems. First, they have better conceptual knowledge. This means that they can apply learning into solving problems. Secondly, they are better placed at solving problems than those learners from traditional learning methods. This means that, other than content knowledge, PBL also teaches learners critical thinking skills that are very essential in problem solving.
Further, problem based learning improves communication skills of the learners . They will be able to pass information to their colleagues in the classrooms as well as their colleagues in the profession later on. This means that the products of PBL system will have a perfect understanding of their professional practice. They will be equally motivated and their attitude towards learning will improve. Learners who have hands on skills on the engineering field will be more welcome to the engineering world as professionals with less complains.
Critical thinking is an essential part of the engineering career. Learners and professionals will face various challenges during their studies and their professional lives that will require critical thinking to solve. Problem based learning provides a perfect opportunity for learners to cultivate their problem solving skills through looking at the problem and thinking about possible solutions. This method is essentially important for learners in higher levels of study in the engineering field as it equips them with required skills to enter the job market. They will be able to communicate better and solve problems much easier.
Finally, while it is important to have individuals with problem solving skills and who can think critically, traditional learning methods cannot be ignored when instilling knowledge to learners in the engineering field. This means that the basic concepts and fundamental knowledge in the formative years can be passed much more effectively only with traditional methods than with problem based learning. The advantages that would accrue if a hybrid system of learning using both problem based learning and teacher centered learning is adopted in engineering programs is enormous. However this does not cancel the fact that problem based learning is a very important factor that will shape engineering professionals now and in the future.
Bridges, E. M., Hallinger, P., & ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. (2004). Implementing problem based learning in leadership development. Eugene, Or: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, University of Oregon.
Dym, C., Agogino, A., Eris, O., Frey, D., and Leifer, L. (2005). Engineering Design Thinking, Teaching, and Learning. Journal of Engineering Education. doi:94/1/103–120.
Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn? Educational Psychology Review. doi:10.1023/B:EDPR.0000034022.16470.f3
Prince, M.J. and Felder, R.M. (2006) Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods: Definitions, Comparisons, and Research Bases. Journal of Engineering Education. Doi:95/2/2087
Settles, B. (2012). Active learning. San Rafael, Calif. (1537 Fourth Street: Morgan & Claypool.