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Stimulating social responsibility as a prerequisite for project based learning

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2nd UICEE Annual Conference on Engineering Education  1999 UICEE

Auckland, New Zealand, 10 - 13 February, 1999

Stimulating social responsibility as a prerequisite for project based learning

Erol İnelmen

Boğaziçi University

Bebek-İstanbul, Turkey
ABSTRACT: In project based learning -contrary to the other conventional educational methods- students are expected to be more active and work on their own while seeking help only from their instructors. A student working in a project -having no clear cut framework- should be able to manage his own time, assess his performance periodically and make constant efforts to show improvements. Similar to real life situations, the student should compile a portfolio of completed projects and thus be self-motivated in the attainment of personal excellency. Experience shows that in order to make such an educational approach succed, an adequate environment must be provided to develop the awareness for social responsibility at the very start of the professional carrier.


During the last decade the author has committed himsef to follow the new ideas that are evolving in the educational world and has attempted to gradually implement this ideas in the classroom [1]. Project based learning –a method that allows students to get hands-on experience in engineering design- has been without doubt the most significant new contribution. Since project based learning requires that student work without the direct supervision of their instructors, mutual trust must be developed to assure that indeed the work is original and not simply copied. In the most recent UICEE conferences in Cracow and Mannheim the need for including in the curriculum basic ethical concepts such as “social reponsability” were clearly stated. During this two conferences Prof. Detert from Siegen University suggested that young generations should be remainded that the basic common human living values should be observed in the professional life. Such a practice will assure hopefully that students will not attempt to use methods that are not accepted by the professional code of ethics. The experience gained by the author while introducing the new approach to learning –based on doing rather than on simple accumulating knowledge- is shared in the following sections with the aim of encouraging the whole community to adopt a similar practice. Extending the scope of this practice to other courses will increase the benefits that can be derived and are inherent in this new educational method.
Sweeping technological, economical and social changes are forcing many organisations to abandon the conventional methods of doing work [2]. Most educational institutions have been affected by this amazing changes and adapted thenselves by introducing re-engineering techniques to develop new strategies [3]. The recent UNESCO report pinpoints this dramatic changes and suggests the “four pillars” that must be strengthened for the reformation of education in the next century. According to this report learning must enhance the quantity/quality of knowledge, the ability of do, the development of the self and the skill to share with others [4]. The realisation of the vision given in the UNESCO report will be possible if the “ecological learning” idea suggested by Ackoff and Emery for the enhancement of “educational functions” is implemented [5]. This new idea –which is in accordance with Kelly’s postulate that humans have a drive to act like a scientists- envisages a natural enquire approach in the learning process [6]. Examples of successful achievements made by researchers working in a developing country are reported by Istefanopulos [7].
Educational methods applying the traditional disciplinary boundaries are not adequate anymore to solve the industrial expectations of today. Although universities -in order to cope with these changes- have created research centers that work with more interdisciplinary approaches, the discipline oriented departmental system of education has survived. Pressure from existing budget regulations, established professional chambers, perceptions and expectations from the community prevents overturning "the pseudo barriers" that exist between departments [8].
As the economical conditions in the world change, the graduates find themselves coping with altogether foreign problems. Since future developments are unpredictable, continuous learning -a lifelong process- is the solution to the adaptability need when new situations arise. While promoting the teaching the art of applying scientific tools to problems that require the use of natural resources for the convenience of men, an education system should develop the ability of self learning in the suggested "common fields of activities". Unfortunately the fact that textbooks are written along disciplinary lines, the need to brake the disciplinary barriers is blocked. The gradual removal of barriers can be accomplished by gearing all the available resources to a reduced number of basic headings. When students are to be allowed to make their decisions regarding their education, fitting education to their abilities, a counseling systems must be implemented. [9].
Trying to make changes in education to cope with current developments by simply revising "here and there" old methods of teaching is dangerous. Professionals which required to have the ability of communicating with others, are expected to find economical, practical, durable, innovative, aesthetic, safe, clean solutions to human needs. Students must have experience in applying the basic principles to real problems, whatever this problems may be in the next decades. This requirement is at odds with the traditional education system which is based on formal lecturing. Radical changes are thus necessary: the assignment of projects can provide the proper environment for the students to develop the abilities to solve real problems [10].
In a more recent work Yerlici introduces the need of introducing in the learning process the concept of innovative thinking by implementing honour programs. The evaluation system in this programs should include a) real life projects selected by the students that will help assuring the continuity of study and b) comprehensive examinations on the combination of several topics covered during the education process. Students enrolled in this programs should be encouraged to make use of computer centers, laboratories and libraries and evaluated by a special committee headed by a tutor [11]. In the search for educational excellency, the possibility of introducing a "vertical collaboration" between students at different levels of education and incorporating their extracurriculum activities, may further enhance this reform program.
Developing countries in trying to catch the rich ones, must exploit the available resource for economical benefits, taking into consideration the fact that the cost of training engineers for this aim is very high. Faced with this dilemma, developing countries must implement new methods of educating engineers. An open education system -run by the state- promises to be a new and more efficient alternative way of training engineers. The curricula in this universities should be as simple as possible. While same basic courses can be offered to all disciplines, option courses should be left to the discretion of each discipline. The number of specialization courses should be twice the number of basic courses. In open universities -open to anyone interested- students should use television supplemented by appropriate booklets and evaluation should be based on two final examinations for each course. Examination schedules -made public one year in advance- should be spread throughout the year. It must be remembered that formal education is only the starting point of the education process. This process is expected to continue throughout the life [12].
As a final measure of reform, Yerlici -clarifying his vision for the future- proposes that higher education should a) improve the ability to question and seek for answers, b) sharpen the vision of details, c) refine the mind for greater sophistication at interpreting data and encourage independent thinking by allowing students observe masters do their research work. Although specialization and research can help students develop this ability, excessive costs are incurred when research is used as a tool for teaching. While providing the basic knowledge good teachers should stimulate the minds of their students in the direction of critical thinking and creativity. Research activities, vital for raising funds and building public image that will attract better students, should not hinder the efficiency of teaching activities [13]. Since research must be supported by industry, the universities are forced to change their conventional educational methods and opt for more real life approaches [14].
In our opinion the educational approach that can equally satisfy the four requirements envisaged by the UNESCO report cited in the previous section is “project based learning”. The example of the Oulu University drastic change from the teaching oriented approach to a more student centred approach is well worth mentioning [15]. A life-long educational perspective must be added to this new approach if we expect the new generations to cope with unforseen changes. Although “project based learning” has advantages over the classical teaching focused education, it has its own drawbacks. Since students are expected to work extra hours outside the classrooms doing research in the libraries and consulting different documents that the instructors may provide, the possibilities for unfair practice exists. There is unfortunately the temptation on the side of the student to indulge in ill-practices hoping that the instructors will not be awared of the situation Creating an atmosphere that enhances the enthusiasm of the students to work for the intrinsic motivation of being successful can prevent misconduct [16]. (See Appendix)
The author has already implemented project based learning in the classroom and the preliminary findings have been already reported [17]. In this paper some “golden rules” (from a to z) compiled from previous practice is now here summarised:

  1. the instructors’s expectations should be stated very clearly at the beginning of the course,

  2. regulations on the desired conduct and evaluation procedures should be transparent,

  3. ill defined unique assignments should be given the first day of class,

  4. students should be encouraged to ask for help and express their opinions openly,

  5. evaluation of assigments should be made ready available to renew the enthusiasm to work,

  6. periodic reporting of new developments should assure active participation,

  7. emphasis should be given to the carrier development of each single participant,

  8. close follow-up should disencourage students from indulging in unfair practices,

  9. peer evaluation should help in attracting the attention of the group as a whole,

  10. jointly participation in extra-curriculum activities should encourage informal contacts,

  11. praising outstanding performance and warning in case of failure should enhances group dynamics,

  12. genuine interest for changes in attitude should help in the disclosure of intimate issues,

  13. implementing a generous bonus system should motivate doing extra work,

  14. immediate advice and help should overcome feeling of panic,

  15. financial support from awards should promote outstanding projects,

  16. revelance of the work in the context of the curriculum should be clear (see Appendix as an example),

  17. encouraging to be autonomous should help in developing self motivation,

  18. follow-up student activities after the course is completed should provide valuable feedback,

  19. in case of doubt in evaluation some extra time should be requested,

  20. allowing for objection in the evaluation should increase the personal contact,

  21. a penalty system for work which is submitted late should encourage self-discipline,

  22. expressing pride for the improvements made in the institution should promote loyalty,

  23. former students accomplishments should help in describing good models,

  24. the professional codes of ethics should be explained with real life examples,

  25. knowing the students abilities should help in choosing the best learning practices,

  26. spending more time with low performing students should help in raising standarts.


Project based learning encourages the students to develop professional skills by doing rather than accumulating knowledge. Instructors and students can cooperate in making the classroom a real life event and the results published can have an audience that will eventually motivate both parties to a life long learning process [18] [19] [20] [21]. Although the findings on the implementation of this approach reported in this paper are very encouraging it is argued that the stimulation of the awareness for social responsibility is a necessary prerequiste. It is expected that only if the instructors are able to create an environment where the accomplishment of the engineering task –plagued in many cases with difficulties and failures- is intrinsically rewarding then the gained enthusiasm will renew the motivation to learn.
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5. Ackoff, R.L. and Emery, F.E., On Purposeful Systems. Aldine Atherton, Chicago, 244 (1972).

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