This post was co-authored by Beata Francis and Dimity Wehr.

The age of filling up empty minds and producing compliant graduates awaiting their instructions is over. We are moving towards the fourth industrial revolution, where knowledge is not only ubiquitous, it’s free. Graduates are expected to be both knowledgeable in their chosen discipline and at the same time, masters of professional capabilities.

In the first blog of this series we introduced MIDAS, an initiative in the Faculty of Engineering and IT (FEIT) to work towards graduating ‘More Innovative, Design-Abled Students’. This change of mindset reflected new graduate attributes focused on being design-oriented, technically proficient, socially responsible, collaborative and communicative, personally reflective and developing professional capabilities to work effectively for and with Indigenous Australian peoples and communities.

Introducing Summer Studios

The first MIDAS Summer Studio launched with 150 students and 12 academics. They were run intensively for 6 weeks, with informal, group-oriented work followed by 3-hour workshop sessions twice a week.

High energy, collaborative and project-based, Summer Studios enable students to undertake real-world design challenges and demonstrate achievement of professional skills. Facilitated by academic experts, industry and community partners, students work in teams to define problems, implement projects and engage with pitching and critiquing work amongst peers, using a Design Thinking framework.

Most students took this MIDAS Summer Studio as an elective in their program, tackling topics such as smart cities, the Global Aerospace Challenge, humanitarian engineering, a Sydney Vivid light show, machine learning, control algorithms, and advanced structural simulation.

Hearts and Minds: a cultural and emotional shift

So how did we get here? To start with, Teaching and Learning representatives in FEIT looked to understand what other institutions were doing differently in this space, discovering discipline experts David E Goldberg and Marc Somerville. The authors of A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education focus on change in engineering education and specialise in promoting collaborative processes, leadership in teaching and curriculum design.

David Goldberg engaged directly over several years with the team, including onsite talks, workshops, monthly online interactions with the MIDAS team; coaching club interactions, and ‘train-the-trainer’ support. David describes the process developing over time:

The cadence was more intense at first with less interaction as the team got its emotional-cultural sea legs under it. I believe this interaction managed the polarity between MIDAS authenticity and just-in-time cultural-emotional training and guidance. 

David Goldberg

Measuring impact: student and staff feedback

Data were collected every week from staff and students and used as feedback in the next classes through iterative conversations. Comments from the Student Feedback Survey summarise some key student reactions:

[Specific studio leaders] should both be commended on their teaching and mentoring styles. They were very approachable and always eager to steer us in the right direction whenever we encountered difficulty.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to work as a multidisciplinary team on a large problem. [Specific studio leaders] made the processes of learning really fun and effective. Both offered really inspiring ways to enhance my learning.

The humanitarian studio gave me a lot of opportunities to develop my innovation and human-centred design thinking as well as expand my network.

Our studio facilitators were on their own process of discovery, too. Following a 6-week session, they noted changes they wanted to make in their teaching, such as closer integration with other subjects and disciplines, greater flexibility with syllabus topics and structure, and facilitating rather than lecturing.

They also wanted to encourage more curiosity, collaboration with peers and multidisciplinary learning opportunities for students; they wanted to give students more independent work, more structure around design thinking and systems engineering, encourage better communication, and start co-designing studios with students and academics.

Facilitators observed that students were able to master a practical problem in terms of the fundamentals, hands-on work, research and development, while contributing as an individual member to a collective project: 

Observing this capability and the pleasant feelings from the students in their acquisition of knowledge through studio learning remains the best and unique reward for me as an educator.

Enabling future-seeking students

In order to develop professional capabilities in our students, FEIT has found that moving towards hands-on, maker-space, studio-style learning environments can be an effective pedagogical framework for giving students the opportunities to become agile, flexible, resourceful, creative, problem-defining, collaborative and whole.

The idea has been popular with a broad cross-section of faculty members, with increasing numbers of studios being pulled into different courses, driven by faculty themselves. This contrasts starkly with resistance that can often surface in such contexts with even modest changes in content, curriculum, and pedagogy.

The embrace and spread of the studios, however, is only one part of the story. The cultural-emotional shift in how we listened to students, cared for them, and trusted them to make mistakes and learn from them was just as essential to the success of the program. This shift has also spread organically to faculty members and students, and as we continue learning how to make these shifts and have them stick, these lessons are ready to share across other faculties and indeed other universities. As this series of posts continues, we share more details about the move to the studio framework, and the inner shift of emotion and culture that was necessary for the studios’ effectiveness.

Read next: Endless summer: 10 principles for engineering change

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