Q&A with Dr Gavin Paul

Can you please give a run-down of the project?

Mechatronics (Mx1) is a core subject in the first stage of FEIT’s Bachelor of Engineering degree for students majoring in Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering. The subject enrols approximately 40-50% of its students as “commencing” (i.e. first-year) students. Students have a wide variety of prior educational/practical experience and come from various socio-economic backgrounds, and up to half have English as a Second Language.

The subject is composed, in equal parts, of theoretical and practice-based (i.e. applied theoretical knowledge) assessment tasks. Practice-based learning is achieved by obtaining first-hand experience in programming and configuring the bespoke Mechatronics Kit using available resources such as data sheets and schematics. However, students often struggle to engage with the material due to minimal programming and hardware experience, and limited English proficiency. Additionally, when students all complete the same default assignment, they can become stifled due to the limited scope of their learning beyond the essential tasks that are allocated marks.

The intent of the FYE grant was the implementation of a personalised learning, and projects run as a studio with students as partners. In this way students could determine their own learning goals, then work towards them collaboratively and with mentoring from staff. The final deliverables were a showcase of their personal projects through demonstration, documentation, and a short video forming their reflections, additions to their personal portfolio, and shareable resources for future Mx1 students. The students also paved the way for demonstrating the advanced capabilities of the new hardware for Mx1.

What was the inspiration for the project?

Deep learning is not about memorising facts or passing exams, it is about engaging with material, synthesising with personal experiences, trying and failing, and coming to a deeper understanding about the world. Learning without purpose is painful. Being forced to make time to learn something that someone else thinks is important can be crushing and demotivating. Conversely, if a student wants to do or learn something, they will make time: “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. Purpose-driven and project-based learning enables a student to identify a solid “why”, which significantly increases their intrinsic motivation. Even with access to all UTS’s learning materials, resources, collaborative learning opportunities and experts in the subject, the real difference stems from the student’s state-of-mind and resourcefulness.

How did you get the students involved?

Each assignment in Mx1 is roughly 7 weeks (either week 1-7 for Assignment 1, and weeks 8-14 for Assignment 2). Thus, the studio program was entered by students as an alternative to one or both assignments. In the allocated time the whole process from student selection to final demonstration and assessment, must occur. The studio program was offered to approximately one quarter of students, who were selected based upon their initial subject engagement. The engagement criteria included considerations about attendance in Interactive Sessions and Labs, that this is their first time in Mx1 (they were not repeating the subject), and the number of UTS online practice quizzes attempted. Through self-selection, approximately 10% of the entire cohort eventually decided to join and complete the studio, as an alternative to their major assignment.

What have been the benefits of the project from your perspective?

It was found that collaboration naturally increased, and their learning outcomes improved significantly, due to their increased sense of purpose and engagement with the subject matter. It has allowed previous students to stay connected to the subject and our robotics research group (UTS:CAS), and to give back and mentor the new students.

Is there anything you would do differently?

It was found that staff time was increasingly spent organising and monitoring learning activities rather than authoritatively disseminating information. Two of the students who participated in a studio for the first assignment in Spring, chose not to continue for the second assignment. Comments given by the two students who pulled out of the program in Spring 2018 were mainly due to workload and competing priorities. Some students (not in the studio) already complain about not enough “teaching”, which seems to be understood to be forcefully jamming facts into student’s heads, “give more teaching session (lecture) rather than student study by themselves” (Mx1 Student, 2018). With an attitude like this, students will not get much benefit from the open-ended and loosely supported learning experience. Therefore, in our opinion (1) studios should be gradually phased in, and (2) studios are best used to complement rather than completely replace existing programmes.

The mentoring team on the benefits of the project

The projects have allowed me to facilitate certain aspects of “students as partners” due to the close-knit nature of the studio. I have also observed that the intrinsic motivation and interest in their projects have also made it a challenging but rewarding experience for them, especially as such an early stage of their degree. The different types of projects within the studio have also broadened possibilities for other students within the group, and sometimes surprised us with their ability to tackle highly-technical problems which are generally expected at later-stage subjects/assessments.

Yujun Lai, Head Tutor

I have seen a major increase in student engagement and interest with the subject content themes and an increased aspiration and ability to pursue more complex extra-curricular/professional opportunities. Many of our students have either been hired as teaching staff for the subject or obtained internships/scholarships both directly and indirectly (through showcasing their projects) from their participation in the project.

Jason Ho, Head Tutor

One of the greatest benefits of this project in my opinion is the opportunity to learn something that interests you. Personally, I have a strong interest in electronics and programming and have always engaged myself with personal interest projects. This studio program was essentially a way I could complete a similar project that interested me, whilst gaining recognition for my work. Projects such as this create a personal sense of achievement, can be included in a personal portfolio and have the potential to further develop after the program either as a personal hobby or another future studio/industry project.

Jacob Vartanian, Tutor

The project gave me the opportunity to work closely with Gavin and the tutors, which helped me demonstrate my engineering skills and pave the way for me to become a tutor as well. Being able to decide our end goals made the overall experience more enjoyable and exciting for both the students and the teachers. I definitely learned more from the project than I would from a normal university assignment.

Dinh Tung Le, Mentor

Feature image by Franck V.

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