Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

A cross-cultural curriculum development project in Electrical Engineering at Curtin University

W. B. Lawrence
Department of Electrical Engineering
Curtin University
This paper describes a teaching initiative in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Curtin University. The initiative involved the development of a new laboratory program for first year engineering students with the specific aims of enhancing team work and communication skills. Action research was used to implement the new program which also focussed on cross cultural cooperation. Planning, implementation and student reaction to the program are discussed in the paper.


The cross-cultural curriculum development project was one of several equity and access initiatives funded by DEET at Curtin University in 1994. Academic staff were invited to submit proposals for projects which would lead to cross-cultural development of some aspect of their teaching. Successful applicants were then expected to implement their proposals using action research - an ongoing process facilitated by regular meetings with a group leader and discussions with peers who were also involved in CCCD projects.

The unit chosen for the project - Electrical Engineering 102, is an introductory unit taken by all first year engineering students at Curtin University. Class contact is two hours per week consisting of a one hour lecture and one hour laboratory session. Assessment has been heavily weighted towards the final examination (80%). Having previously taught the unit, I was well aware of the difficulties it posed to students. Two features of the unit which fitted in well with the CCCD project were:

  1. a large proportion of the students are from non-English speaking backgrounds (40-50%).

  2. the failure rate is consistently around 40% - calling for some improvement in the teaching/learning process.
The laboratory component of the unit - based on a voluminous laboratory manual, full of detailed information, aroused little enthusiasm with students and appeared to have minimal impact on the learning process. It was decided to implement a new laboratory program which would address these failings and enhance the learning experience of the students. Specific aims of the new program were:
  1. to get local and NESB students to work effectively in teams.

  2. to improve communication skills of students (both oral and written).
Modern engineers work in a global environment, hence the ability to work in mixed teams and communicate effectively are highly desirable attributes of engineering students. Both, are frequently cited as characteristics of engineering graduates which need improving [1].. Employers are quoted in reference [1] " We have engineers in our company who do terrific technical work, but they can't communicate what they are doing." Whilst it may be thought that this is only likely to apply to students from non-English speaking backgrounds, experience has shown that local students who choose engineering courses also demonstrate much stronger numerate rather than literate ability. Particularly in the USA, courses emphasizing teamwork are now being introduced into the undergraduate curriculum [2], [3].

Planning and implementation of the project

Project planning
Action research involves a sequence of processes - formulation of a plan, implementation of the plan and reflection on the results - which form a closed loop. Successive iterations around the loop eventually lead to the desired outcome. The dynamic nature of action research is at odds with the tight, prescriptive approach epitomised by the old laboratory manual, hence it was decided to abandon this manual and replace it with a new program of investigative laboratory exercises. For example:
LAB 2: Display and sketch ac voltage and current waveforms for an R-L load and hence determine the phase shift.
Students are provided with, variable R and L components, an ac signal generator and a 2 channel CRO.
Associated with the laboratories, all students provide a blank exercise book for recording their laboratory work (with numbered pages to avoid additions and subtractions of work).

Each of the five laboratory classes (18-20 students) was divided into teams of 3 - carefully chosen from class lists to be cross-cultural. At the first laboratory session, students were briefed on the importance of team work in the industrial environment. It was also impressed on students that since the laboratories were now open-ended investigations, it was essential that they meet prior to the laboratory session to plan their activity in the laboratory. The laboratory reports were to consist of three distinct sections:

  1. pre-laboratory - circuit connections and a set of steps or measurements to be made in the laboratory.
  2. laboratory results - waveforms and recorded experimental values.
  3. conclusions - explanation of results, supporting calculations, comments, etc.
Unit assessment was revised to give more weight to the laboratories and assignments. 60% final examination
10% mid semester test
10% laboratory book
10% assignment
10% laboratory test or presentation
Implementation of project
Following an introduction in the first week, the program ran as a series of two laboratory sessions followed by a tutorial/discussion session, ie. a three week cycle, repeated three times. After each set of two laboratories the laboratory books were collected and assessed - this provided an opportunity to gauge students progress and provide feedback on the laboratory activities. Marking around 90 laboratory books proved one of the more onerous aspects of the project.

In order to further emphasise team work, assignments for the semester were allocated to individual teams. Assignment work typically involves a simple design exercise which can now be made more demanding (and interesting). Teams were given a choice of giving an oral presentation of their assignment or having a laboratory test - interestingly all students chose the laboratory test, indicating some apprehension about speaking in public.

The actual laboratory sessions were supervised by two people - this was essential for students to be able to ask questions and get circuits working as well as comment on their results. In short, the sessions became much more interactive than in the past, with the emphasis being on learning from the laboratory activity rather than simply performing set exercises to obtain predictable results.

Regular discussions with the action research facilitator and others involved in CCCD projects allowed modifications to be made at the end of each cycle to overcome perceived weaknesses, eg. how to obtain feedback? - by interviewing students and collecting laboratory books.

Project outcomes

At the end of the semester, students were asked to complete a survey plus they were asked to take part in a discussion about the project. They provided some interesting feedback:
  1. Students generally appreciated the new, investigative approach to laboratories, they felt they had learned more and enjoyed making up their own experiments. Evidence of learning was seen in the laboratory tests when students (in their teams) were asked to connect and test a previously unseen circuit. Almost all accomplished this at the first attempt - those unsuccessful were asked to repeat the test the following week.

  2. The sight of a completely blank laboratory manual, coupled with very brief descriptions of what was expected in the laboratory, seemed unsettling and students asked for more guidance to be given as to the requirements of the laboratory sessions and the format of the laboratory reports.

  3. Socialisation had occurred within teams (all students at least knew the names and how to contact other team members). The most effective teams seemed to be those containing one Australian and two Asians, the alternate mix of two Australian and one Asian sometimes led to the Asian feeling excluded. I had several visits from individual students to complain about their partners ("difficult to contact" or "not contributing"). These students expected me to provide a solution, eg. by changing groups, but were told that it was up to them to try and resolve the situation - as they would have to do in a real life situation. Individual laboratory books were useful in this respect as "good" students felt they had some way of demonstrating their input.

  4. Nearly all laboratories involved the use of a particular instrument (the CRO). Students were apprehensive about using this instrument without any detailed instructions. While I would not want to revert to the detailed description given in the old laboratory manual, perhaps a session could be devoted to "playing with the instrument" and getting students to write their own users guide.
Having completed one cycle of the new program I now have enough information with which to plan an improved version of the program for first semester 1995. This follows the action research feedback process with a ripple effect involving other staff and students. 1995 will be a significant test for the new program as enrolment in the unit will be over 200 and the sessions will be mostly taken by postgraduate students.

Reflecting on the original aims and outcomes of the program, I consider the first aim, of getting students to work effectively in cross-cultural teams, has been largely achieved. The second aim, relating to improved communication skills, has been partially successful - students communicated effectively in the laboratory and within their teams but outside of this there was no evidence of improved presentation skills, either oral or written. These are aspects of the program to be improved on the next pass.

In conclusion, through my involvement with the CCCD project I was able to devise a learning program which was relevant, rewarding and enjoyable - both for the first year engineering students and myself as the facilitator.


[1] E Baum, Views of an Educator, IEEE Power Engineering Review, May 1994.

[2] J Bronzino et al, Design and Teamwork: A Must for Freshmen, IEEE Transactions on Education, Vol 37 No 2, May 1994.

[3] R Hilborn, Team Learning for Engineering Students, IEEE Trans in Education, Vol 37 No 2, May 1994.

Please cite as: Lawrence, W. B. (1995). A cross-cultural curriculum development project in Electrical Engineering at Curtin University. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p153-156. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/lawrence.html

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