Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Problem solving: A multidisciplinary approach to learning technology

P John Williams
Vocational Education
Edith Cowan University

An evaluation of a problem based learning approach to teaching technology

This paper discusses a collaborative Problem Based Learning (PBL) approach to teaching in the context of technology education. A wide variety of educational methods are problem based, and they may have quite different educational objectives. That which they all have in common is the use of problems in the instructional sequence. The problems may be as diverse as a mechanical predicament, an unexplained phenomena, or patient symptoms.

In order to appreciate the need for the implementation of such collaborative methodologies as PBL into technology teacher education in Australia, it is important to understand the historical development of technology education, the forces that have shaped it, the current forces for change, the demands upon the school systems and, consequently, the tertiary institutions training teachers for these schools.

Technology education was introduced into the Australian school system at the turn of the Century. It was formed to meet the needs of a fast growing manufacturing and industrial sector. The nation had come out of a depression and was going through a period of boom or growth. The needs of industry were mainly a semi skilled trade based workforce. The secondary school technology curriculum was therefore based upon the trades that were needed by the industries of the day. These included vocational or trade oriented skills such as drawing and benchwork skills in both wood and metal.

Until very recently, there has been little significant change in the content and the form of technology education in secondary schools. Even at the end of the last decade, it was still basically skills centred with a focus on replicating demonstrated skills and production of projects that were primarily based on wood and metal.

During the 1980s education became the focus of social attention. In general, there was a feeling of concern about secondary school graduates. In order to identify the problems that existed and the areas that needed development, a number of studies were conducted (Carrick, 1989). As a result technology education is currently undergoing the changes necessary to meet the demands of society. Briefly, the current trends in technology include:

  1. The incorporation of a diverse range of technologies and a variety of application of these technologies.
  2. The methodology identified as appropriate for teaching these technologies is that of problem solving, or the design process.
  3. The opportunity for the development of creativity and adaptability skills.
  4. The ability of people to work together collaboratively in the problem solving process.
The rationale for structuring a curriculum on PBL is to promote student centred interdisciplinary education as a basis for lifelong learning in professional practice. The professions that have most often implemented PBL have in common identifying and trying to resolve 'problems' through various phases of carefully orchestrated activities. Attempt is made to simulate the professional context in which the knowledge is to be used. Problems act as the stimulus and focus for student activity (Boud, 1991) in providing the opportunities for students to develop professional behaviours. It is grounded on the belief that learning is most effective when students are actively involved, and learn in the context in which the knowledge is to be used.

Apart from the basic methodology, there are other aspects of PBL that are relevant to technology educators. Because it has been implemented in a number of contexts for some time, a body of research has developed relating to aspects such as the psychological basis for PBL as both a teaching and learning phenomena, appropriate assessment methods, evaluation of the impact of PBL, and different teaching methods. Technology educators do not yet have as significant a body of research upon which to draw.

Similarities Between PBL and the Design Process

The design process has commonly been identified as an appropriate methodology for teaching technology. There are a number of similarities between PBL and design. Briefly these include:
  1. A large number of phases or stages through which to pass during the project.
  2. Both start with an identified problem or situation which directs the students area or context of study.
  3. Student initiated research is relied upon for the student to progress through the project as well as for their own learning.
  4. Both require high levels of student initiative, students need to develop motivation and organisation skills.
  5. Both lend themselves to long term projects, PBL may be used over a short time frame but this does not detract from its ability to be used effectively over a longer time frame, as is usually associated with technology projects.
  6. Both are open ended with regard to outcomes, allowing the student the opportunity to choose, after appropriate research, an outcome that interests them.
  7. Observational skills are identified as having a high priority, especially in the initial stages during the identification of the problem.
  8. Student reflection is an important aspect of both models, the student is encouraged to evaluate fully the outcome they have achieved.
These similarities indicate that both the design model and the PBL model are representative of appropriate methodologies for technology education. The interest of this paper is in the application of the PBL model to technology education. The PBL model has a number of distinctive aspects, and it is these that can readily and appropriately apply to technology education:

1. A reliance upon groupwork. Group work has become an important methodology for technology education. The ability of individuals to work as a member of a group has been identified as an important attribute, it requires a range of skills which include, (a) an ability to incorporate their personal skills into a group project, (b) to work with others to identify and organise a range of tasks to be addressed by the group, (c) to persevere with teamwork in problem resolution, (d) to participate in shared learning exercises, and (e) engage in shared decision making (Australian Education Council, 1992, 19, 20, 24, 30).

The ability of an individual to work as a group member is seen as important to the technological world. Technologically developed countries such as Japan an Sweden have used groups or teams as a strategy in solving technological problems whereas Australia is just beginning to appreciate the benefits of using this problem solving strategy. The skills identified in the Technology for Australian Schools Interim Statement (see above), acknowledge the need for individuals to be able to work effectively as team members.

Kennedy and O'Kelly (1991) established that students, through involvement in group work, were exposed to experiences that emulated the 'world of work'. The skills developed through groupwork include communication skills, adaptability, listening skills and organisational skills (Eckert, 1991, 10-11).

PBL is based on the practice of using groupwork as a basic principle. Because of this use of groupwork there is a range of benefits to be gained through the incorporation of this strategy into the technology classroom.

2. An emphasis on analysis. Another characteristic of PBL that lends itself to technology education is the recognition of the skill of analysis. It has long been recognised that research has been an important aspect of the design process, what the PBL strategy does is to add emphasis to the area of analysis.

The PBL methodology encourages students to undertake in-depth analysis of the information they have gathered as well as the information they have received in relation to the problem or situation. This emphasis on analysis is shown by the boxing in of this component on the model in Figure 2. This emphasis on analysis is needed in technology problem solving as it is too easy for students to gather a great deal of information during the research phase of problem solving, then simply use that information to support their original ideas. Through thorough analysis of both the problem and the information gained through research a student will be able to develop a better range of options as well as a more considered final outcome.

3. Encouragement of student collaboration. The use of groups is a basic principle of PBL methodology. The reason for the reliance on groups is to develop collaborative working skills in the students. In the early stages of the process of problem solving in groups, brainstorming is vital. This is far more effective in a group environment than when done individually. The major reason for this increase in effectiveness is that there is a reduced level of fear of failure in the group (Killen, 1992,72).

The ability to work collaboratively with other students in the organising and planning of the procedure for solving a problem is vital for students who are to be involved in technology in the future. The PBL process encourages this, as Feletti (1993,184) describes:

As a group the students will identify topics or issues which later become the focus of their independent studies. The group may subdivide the list, work individually or in small teams, and later share their new information. As a part of the group process, students may try to explain new ideas or reason together how mechanisms work or systems interact.
Through such activities students come to value teamwork, learn to make and keep commitments and to realise that collaboration invariably leads to cooperation. These skills and attitudes will be increasingly essential to the practising technology educator and the participants in technology activities.

4. Reflection on the process as well as the product. This fourth aspect of the PBL methodology that provides a valuable experience for technology educators is the emphasis on reflection. The ability to evaluate the effectiveness of the outcome, and the process followed in achieving that outcome, has long been recognised as an important part of the design process. The PBL methodology places an emphasis on reflection as a part of the process, as well as the outcome achieved by that process. Another important aspect of this reflective process is that it also includes reflection on the learning experience that has taken place while participating in the project. Feletti (1993,148) describes this reflective process thus:

This is a professional skill which requires each student to think about his or her learning experience as a whole. At a metacognitive level they can review what path the learning took, whether this was according to plan and, if there were efficiencies in skills, resources or time, then what needed to be identified and overcome. In other words, students and teacher can reflect on what might be done next time and what has changed in them (individually or as a group).
The ability to participate in reflection wholistically is very important for a technologist but the ability to reflect on the learning (personal change) that has taken place as a result of the process is a very important skill for an educator to have.

The PBL Project in Technology

A problem based approach to technology was implemented with fourth year BEd Design and Technology students in 1994 and 1995. The subject introduced students to the context of solar energy applications. Students were informed about the PBL methodology at the beginning of the semester to ensure that they understood the process and what experiences they were likely to confront during the project. Students selected their own group members, on lecturers advice as to the criteria to follow. The students were exposed to a wide range of information and media about solar energy and its current applications.

The general problem in the context of solar energy applications was presented to students, then students specified the context and the problem as a part of the process of understanding both the problem and the technology, based on group analytic research. Some of the other features of the project were:

  1. Students worked in groups of four. This group size allowed for high levels of individual involvement but also provided experiences in the function and organisation of group work.

  2. Student groups undertook preliminary research in the field of solar energy application, materials provided by the lecturers (eg. videos) initiated and supplemented student research.

  3. Student groups identified a potential area of interest in solar energy application and undertook in-depth research into this application in order to develop a design opportunity.

  4. Student groups organised their approach to solving the problem.

  5. Student groups undertook the development of a working prototype which fulfils the developed design brief.

  6. Student groups documented research, the input of individual group members, and prototype design and development.

  7. Students evaluated their group's prototype as well as the process used to achieve the outcome. The students learning experience while participating in the project was also be evaluated.
Figure 1

Figure 1: PBL Method in Technology

The diagram in Figure 1 has been used to illustrate to students involved in this project some of the processes and expectations of the course. The 'INPUTS' represent the ideas generated from the initial individual research. As these inputs are critically examined, the goal is to determine the most satisfactory solution to the problem, and this will be the input that continues through the funnel to become the solution. In the context of technology, the solution is generally a system or product.

The narrowing funnel shape represents the increasingly specific and in depth research that is required as the group moves from broad superficial research to problem solution. The numbers represent specific phases of activity.

The initial phase (1) is the presentation of the problem to the individuals in the class, the resulting wide ranging individual research that is expected to help clarify and define the problem, and the exposure to lecturer prepared introductory material.

The groups are formed at (2). It is hypothesized that initial individual research facilitates effective group formation by providing a basis for complementary individuals within groups. As the groups are formed, the research becomes immediately broadened, in the movement from individual research to group directed research. Then the group research becomes more specific and in greater depth as the problem is clarified and specified.

At about (3), the group should identify a solution to the problem. Specific in-depth research, organized by the group, is begun to be applied in solution construction.

The group solves the problem and presents the solution in (4).

The evaluation stage of (5) attempts to answer the question of how well the problem has been solved, and to evaluate the learning process and efficacy of the group.

The groups selected a variety of solar powered applications to develop, including a wheel chair lift, an illuminated suit for bike riders, an automatic greenhouse venting system, a hydroponics system and a swimming pool skimmer to collect leaves etc from the surface of a pool, a camping shower, a back pack spray pump and a remote controlled gate opener.


The projects developed were all satisfactory to excellent. The majority of the physical project development work was completed in the last few weeks of the course. It was felt that if this development phase could have begun earlier all the results would have all been excellent. There was some initial discomfort felt by both students and lecturers with the process, students felt the need for specific direction in the context of a situation in which they had to define and address a problem, and it is always a temptation for lecturers to give the solution to a problem rather than guiding the students to find an appropriate solution for themselves.

An evaluation was conducted at the conclusion of the course, consisting of eighteen items to which students responded on a 5 point Likert scale from 'not at all' to 'completely', and two open ended items. The evaluation items were grouped around six themes:

  1. open endedness of the project
  2. satisfaction of learning needs
  3. learner centred approach
  4. group work
  5. cognitive skill development
  6. researching new knowledge
ANOVA tests for the zero mean difference between themes, t-tests for the differences between 1994 and 1995, 1 way ANOVA for the difference between groups, and correlations between themes were computed. The following are some of the results and conclusions:
  1. The female group felt significantly more positive toward the project than the other all male groups.

  2. Students saw the group work experience as enjoyable and valuable, but not in the context of satisfying their learning needs.

  3. The openendedness of the problem was perceived more positively in 1995 than in 1994.

  4. The acquisition of new knowledge was not seen to be facilitated using this methodology.

  5. The resources available at the beginning of the problem were perceived to be inadequate in 1994, but not in 1995.

  6. Students did not see problem based learning as a valuable method in terms of their own teaching.
As a result of this project and evaluation, future applications of problem based learning methodologies in technology should consider the following points:
  1. Carefully select group members to ensure complementary skills.

  2. Develop a monitoring/reporting mechanism to keep groups focussed and progressive.

  3. Establish deadlines for the completion of stages.

  4. Improve the assessment mechanism that discriminates more fully among individual group members at stages throughout the course.

  5. Comparatively evaluate performance and responses of a class that has a background in student centred strategies.

  6. The methodology may need to be taught if it is new to the students.


Australian Education Council. (1992). Interim Statement of Technology for Australian Schools. Melbourne: Curriculum Corporation.

Barrows, H. and Tamblyn, R. (1980). Problem Based Learning: an approach to medical education. New York: Springer

Barrows, H. (1986). A taxonomy of Problem Based methods. Medical Education, 20, 481-486.

Boud, D. and Feletti, G. (1991). The challenge of problem based learning. London: Kogan Page.

Carrick, (1989). The Carrick Report on Secondary Education. Sydney: NSW Government Printer.

Eckert, P. (1991). Preparing for the 21st Century by Collaboratively Learning for a more Productive School. Primary Focus, March, 9-12.

Feletti, G. (1993). Inquiry based and problem based learning: how similar are these approaches to nursing and medical education. Higher Education Research and Development, 12(2), 143-156.

Kennedy, T. and O'Kelly, C. (1991). All in Cooperative Education. Carlton: Curriculum Organization.

Killen, R. (1992). Teaching Strategies for Design and Technology. The University of Newcastle D&T Development Project, Newcastle.

New South Wales Department of Education (1988). Technology Education: A Discussion Paper. Sydney: NSW Government Printer.

Author: Dr P John Williams, Vocational Education, Edith Cowan University, Bradford St, Mt Lawley WA 6050. Ph: +61 9 370 6847 Fax: +61 9 370 2910 Email: p.j.williams@cowan.edu.au

Please cite as: Williams, P. J. (1996). Problem solving: A multidisciplinary approach to learning technology. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p171-178. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/williamspj.html

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