Project-based team work in geospatial engineering

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A project-based course in the base year of Geospatial Engineering offers students the opportunity to get insights into a related real-world challenge already early during their Bachelor’s program. They have a lot of freedom to shape the project and exploratively work on it in small teams. Besides the methodical and subject related competences which the students acquire, the course aims particularly at enhancing a variety of transferable skills, above all teamwork. A challenging and relevant problem to work on, a Belbin-test used for balanced team formation, close supervision by course assistants and detailed feedback throughout the semester are success factors of this course.

Why was this done?

This course is all about motivation, hands-on experience, and transferable skills. We wanted to create a motivating opportunity for the first-year students to work on challenging and relevant problems in geospatial core subjects. Rather than waiting for a comprehensive methodical and subject-related education to be completed, the students should get early practical insight into this field. The experience should help them understand the need for the fundamental courses taught in the base year and for the courses still to come. It should also whet their appetite to explore new fields, apply creativity and critical thinking, and help them to reflect on their specific interests, strengths and weaknesses. As a complement to the summative assessment within the base year exams this supports the students in reflecting their choice of bachelor’s program and in deciding between the elective modules offered for the 4th to 6th semester.

The course should also create a space for integrated fostering and enhancement of a variety of transferable skills with a focus on teamwork, project management, scientific working, communication and critical thinking.

How was this done?

We implemented the course as a project for problem-based learning. Two or more topic areas are offered for each spring semester. The students chose one of these areas and then work on a related project in teams of 4-5. The topics offered in spring 2019 and 2020 are (i) a site evaluation for wind farms in Switzerland, and (ii) the development of a location-aware mobile indoor robot. Within a given framework each team defines the focus and its own concrete goals, e.g. in the case of the mobile robot, the teams decide which location-based activity their respective robot should accomplish and which sensors and actuators it should use.

Close supervision by the course assistants, regular coaching and group discussions as well as small exercises support the learning experience and working process. The project work is complemented with a few short lectures, demos and introductions. These are intended to provide starting points for the students’ own research related to project context and tools (software, hardware, data bases), as well as for the conscious application and enhancement of transferable skills. For the latter, the students’ attention is drawn to the set of documents including checklists, templates, and brief descriptions which were made available to them already at the beginning of the first semester and which they are encouraged to use independently throughout the Bachelor’s program.

The students are assigned to the teams by the lecturers. With the help of the educational developer of D-USYS we introduced a voluntary Belbin test as a basis for forming well-balanced teams. So far, all students taking this course have participated. We require them to start the teamwork with a team agreement, and encourage them to discuss and reflect their roles throughout the semester. However, we only disclose the test results (to the respective student) about midway through the semester. So the students take over certain roles within the team without being biased by the test results, but they still benefit from the opportunity to compare the teamwork experience, the mutual perceptions within the group, and their respective self-perception to the test results later on.

Teaching assistants act as coaches and are available for guidance throughout the project. They do not restrict the student’s autonomy in choosing their own focus, planning the teamwork and the project, exploring potential solutions and also running into problems. However, they support the students through discussions, questions and hints in keeping track of the goals and restrictions, in working efficiently and overcoming difficult phases e.g. when trying to find and fix bugs in their own software.

At the end of the semester, all teams present their task and solution to the other teams, if applicable including a live demonstration. Formally, the course has only a pass/fail grade but in fact, the students receive feedback throughout the semester. This releases the perceived pressure for the students and allows them to explore methods and ideas related to the subject and to the transferable skills.

What did the students say?

The students generally appreciate the freedom to implement their own ideas while working on their projects. They actively contribute to the course and with very few exceptions remain highly motivated throughout the course. Several students have reported that they perceived the outputs of the Belbin test, the newly acquired knowledge about team roles, and the experience of working within a Belbin-based team as particularly positive.

The results as well as the process over the course of the semester are reflected individually with each group and the supervisors to discuss potential to improve further. The students also expressed that they liked the close supervision and the problem-based working a lot. We as instructors and coaches enjoy the close interaction with the students who generally engage strongly in the course. Through the repeated individual reflection with each team we also get very direct feedback and proposals for future improvement. One such proposal by the students, which we will introduce in spring 2020, are ‘peer-troubleshooting events’ where the teams exchange experiences and help each other without supervision or observation by the course instructors and teaching assistants.

Through the repeated individual reflection with each team we also get very direct feedback and proposals for future improvement.
Prof. Andreas Wieser

Course Description

Name:
Project work Geospatial Engineering
Description:
This project-based course allows the students to get insights into a selected real-world challenge in Geospatial Engineering. Besides the methodical and subject related competences which the students acquire, the course aims particularly at enhancing a variety of transferable skills, above all teamwork, critical thinking and communication. The team members discuss and plan their roles, they take initiative and responsibility for the team result such that the project goals can be achieved.
Objective:
- The students know the basic rules of scientific working and integrity, and apply them to their work
- The students know and apply success factors for teamwork including team roles, team phases and reflection
- The students know and apply the elements of critical thinking, they identify and reflect their own position within discussions
- The students have obtained insight into a selected challenge within Geospatial Engineering and are able to share this insight with their fellow students
VVZ:
101-0510-10L
Department:
D-BAUG
Level:
BSc 1st year
Format:
Supervised team work, self-study, presentation and reflection
Size:
ca. 40
Cohort:
D-BAUG (BSc Geospatial Engineering only)
Type:
Obligatory
Teaching Power:
2 Professors, 3-4 Postdocs or PhD students, 3-4 teaching assistants
Assessment:
ungraded semester performance – oral/written feedback to groups and individuals, virtual grades communicated for orientation

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