Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How to provide effective undergraduate laboratory sessions to undergraduate engineering students

Robert Mun
School of Chemical Engineering
Curtin University of Technology
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.


Laboratory work is an essential part of engineering undergraduate degrees, where essential is defined by the Institute of Engineers, who accredit the degree. There is no clear definition of what is to be achieved, or how it is to be achieved. The advantage of this approach is that it leaves open every possible opportunity for active use of the imagination in determining the course. The disadvantage is that the minimum requirements are hard to find. Typically the goals of practical work are to (1):
  1. Improve technical skills relevant to the subject;
  2. Improve the understanding of methods of scientific inquiry;
  3. Reinforce theory with practice;
  4. Develop problem solving skills; and
  5. Nurture professional attitudes.
In the area of problem solving skills, it is possible to further breakdown the requirements as (2):
  1. Defining the problem;
  2. Analysing the problem;
  3. Plan a solution;
  4. Perform or determine the solution; and
  5. Evaluate the solution.
In reality, this procedure is common to all tasks that the student will encounter. However, succeeding in persuading the student to do more than create a solution is a difficult task.

Current practice

The typical undergraduate laboratory in Chemical Engineering at Curtin University only touches on some of the desired characteristics. The student is provided with a laboratory manual that outlines the basic theory of an experiment, the operation of the equipment, and some guidelines on what is to be determined.

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.

Problems in changing the system

The major difficulty lies in the limited range of resources available. Typically, there are barely sufficient funds to keep the laboratories operational, let alone adding equipment to them. As a result, there are few pieces of equipment, and this limits the order in which students can perform the experiments. Unfortunately, it is rare that the student will have encountered the theory behind an experimental problem before they perform the experiment.

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.

The desired outcome

In a previous presentation (4) a desired pattern for laboratory classes was presented, whereby the classes were defined as:

Class LevelLaboratory TypeObjectives
2nd YearFormulated ExperimentEquipment familiarity
Problem investigation
Data analysis
3rd YearDirected Closed ExperimentProblem identification
Experimental Design
4th YearDirected Open ExperimentIndependent Research
Apparatus Design

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 research

In 1997, the same group of 3rd year students was required to perform laboratory work in both Heat Transfer 341 and Fluid Mechanics 341. This offered the opportunity to provide two distinct types of laboratories and observe the results.

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.

Heat Transfer 341

In this course, the laboratory program was presented in the traditional format. The student was presented with a manual that detailed the objective, the background theory and how to use the apparatus. They were then required to perform the experiment, analyse the results and prepare a report, having 2 weeks to complete the report.

Fluid Mechanics 341

The laboratory program for this course was altered to require more student input. The student was required to attend a prelab session of 1/2 hour duration. The objective of this session was for the students to be able to familiarise themselves with the equipment, and ask any questions of the demonstrator. The student was then required to prepare a brief experimental outline, stating their objective and how they intended to achieve it. This was to be submitted 24 hours before the actual laboratory class for approval.

The results - Student evaluation

A survey conducted at the end of the course received 41 responses, from 42 students. The students were asked which form of the laboratory they preferred, which they thought that they learnt more from, and then for general comments.

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);
More guidance required on objective, such as several options (Fluid Mechanics 341); and
Too many laboratories (4 in each subject).
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.

The results - Instructor evaluation

The prelab sessions started with considerable disarray, as the students were ill prepared for looking at an apparatus, and then determining what could be demonstrated. The vast majority of the students had performed little or no prior preparation, and consequently could make little inroad into determining an objective.

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.


The initial trial can be deemed a dismal failure. The objective was to increase the student learning and input into the experimental program. What was seen was no real increase in learning or input, with an increased instructor load. It is still important to increase the benefit of the laboratory program to the student, preferably without increasing the workload on the instructor and the students.

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.

The plan

In 1999, the same students will be performing Fluid Mechanics 341 and Heat Transfer 341. There will be in the vicinity of 60 students in each class (a significant increase from the usual 40). Again, it will be possible to utilise two different programs for evaluation by the students and the instructors.

Course 1:

Course 2:


  1. Brown, G., Bull, J. and Pendlebury M. (1997). Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. Routledge, New York, .

  2. Woods, D.R. (1983). Chem Tech, 13, 459-462.

  3. Beard, R.M., Bligh, D.A. and Harding, A.G. (1978). Research into Teaching Methods in Higher Education, 4th Ed. Univ. Surrey.

  4. Mun, R. P. (1997). Engineering laboratory classes: What purpose and what format? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p234-238. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/mun234.html

  5. Dunn, J. G. and Phillips, D. N. (1997). Introducing second year chemistry students to research work through mini-projects. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p271-275. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/phil271.html

  6. Dunn, J. G., Phillips, D. N. and van Bronswijk, W. (1997). Introducing third year chemistry students to the planning and design of an experimental program. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p267-270. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/phil267.html
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

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