The provision of laboratory course work to undergraduate engineering students is a major problem. The immediate problems are:
I have tried several permutations over the last two years and will report on the results of these trials. Plans for the undergraduate laboratories for 1999 will be presented and suggestions for changes and improvements invited. These plans, as in previous years will see the same group of students approaching two similar third year laboratory classes with different presentation techniques.
- Limited equipment - laboratories and class work out of sync;
- Excessive time spent on reports;
- Insufficient student preparation for the laboratory; and
- The number of laboratories that a student should do.
Thus the student needs to show little initiative, and no effort what so ever is expended in determining the means of achieving a solution to the problem, indeed, the problem and the solution are defined for them. So, the standard laboratory will achieve goals 1 and 3, it may achieve goal 5 , but will not significantly contribute to goals 2 and 4, and may indeed hinder these by making the problem too easy.
Generally what happens in the laboratory is that a student will appear, usually with the laboratory manual, though it is highly unlikely that they will have read it. They will then vaguely determine how the apparatus operates, take a number of readings and then depart. Several weeks later they will submit a report, which often bears a remarkable resemblance to reports from previous years.
As a result of this, it is difficult to expect the student to know a great deal about the theory and problem. Indeed, a common complaint from students' (3) is that the theory is taught after they perform the experiment. This is not as great a problem for courses where there is a good textbook available, but unfortunately not all courses have access to such a textbook.
Resistance to change is considerable. Students will not desire any change that is perceived to involve more work and thought for them, even if a better learning outcome is achieved. Staff are also difficult to convince to change, their requirement is that it involves no more contact time or marking time, and preferably no-time involved in developing new experiments, largely because it is an activity that will not further anyone's career.
As a consequence, any change will have little monetary support, negligible student support, and the only support that can be expected from the majority of the staff is morale support.
|Class Level||Laboratory Type||Objectives|
|2nd Year||Formulated Experiment||Equipment familiarity|
|3rd Year||Directed Closed Experiment||Problem identification|
|4th Year||Directed Open Experiment||Independent Research|
The objective being to take the student from performing a specified experiment to performing open ended research projects in a graduated manner. Thus, the students begin by performing formulaic experiments in second year classes, graduating to preparing their own experiments on a selected piece of apparatus in 3rd year, and finally in 4th year dealing with a full research project.
The limited equipment available restricted the timing of the experiments, so that the students experimental work and lecture material were usually out of sync. Also, the equipment had not changed from that used in previous years, only the way the laboratory manual was written.
The students overwhelmingly preferred the recipe format. With only 10% preferring the more intense course. As for which they learnt more from, the results were more split, with a slight majority considering that the student input experiments had a greater value.
The general comments can be summarised as follows:
Too much time spent on writing the report (the most common);What can be determined from the student input is that they do not like having to determine their own objective, and that at best they prefer to pick from a range of objectives. Presumably preferring that with the least work involved. Further they seem to consider that the time required to write a report to be excessive as most indicated that they spent more than 9 hours preparing each report.
More guidance required on objective, such as several options (Fluid Mechanics 341); and Too many laboratories (4 in each subject).
Once the semester was well underway, their performance improved, but only to the extent that they had observed previous students using the apparatus. Whilst each rig could examine several facets of the theory, there were few genuine efforts at originality. Consequently the laboratories became as formalised as ever.
The only advantage of the prelab session was that the students usually acquired an inkling of how the apparatus worked, so that the actual laboratory session ran smoothly, with few problems.
Since the objective was to increase the student input into their experiment, the trial can be deemed to be a failure. The students put little effort into the sessions, and the prelab and preliminary report increased the workload of the demonstrator.
It may indeed be necessary to modify the laboratory program, perhaps so that it incorporates standardised laboratory work and project laboratory work. Short projects could be formulated and completed in teams, along the lines of those utilised in Applied Chemistry (5, 6) performed in conjunction with several normal laboratory tasks.
The major student complaint appears to be the excessive amount of time spent on preparing the reports. It may be possible to use a combination of a laboratory workbook, and a single formal report to assess their laboratory work.
In addition to their laboratory work the students will be required to undertake a small research project. This will be undertaken in small groups, and will largely consist of a literature review, evaluating the current state of opinion on their topic.
The laboratory work will be similar to course 1, accept that there will only be 3 experiments. Each of these experiments will be written into a laboratory workbook, along with observations, calculations and a brief discussion. The workbook will be submitted 1 hour after the completion of the experiment. Thus, the student must have appropriate theory, tables and graphs prepared before they attend the class, so that all they need to do is enter their data, and comment on the results they achieved.
In addition to the workbook, the students will be required to submit a single formal report on an experiment of their choosing. The formal report will require them to collect data from other teams and then comment on the totality of the information obtained.
The project in this course will be along the lines of the mini-projects suggested by Dunn and Phillips (5) where each team will be given a small task to research and achieve. This task may involve the use of the laboratory experimental apparatus, or an apparatus of the students own devising.
|Please cite as: Mun, R. (1999). How to provide effective undergraduate laboratory sessions to undergraduate engineering students. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 293-297. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/mun.html|