When thinking back on our past, we often have deeper memories of planned
events—whether they be weddings or graduations or birthday parties—that serve as important milestones in our development. You can provide your students with such a "marker event" in their education—and help them remember your class long after the lectures have faded into oblivion—by including course projects.
Projects allow students to actually design or build something, which often motivates them to go well beyond what is required. Projects can last a week, an entire semester, or even longer, and can be tailored to all levels, from freshmen to graduate students. Grading the better projects is almost a pleasure because of their quality, and students are often very proud of results. Soft skills like teamwork and communication also are put to use,
making it easier to satisfy ABET criteria.
Of course, students have been known to procrastinate—barely working on the project until the deadline, then burning the midnight oil to produce a result that receives a generous C. However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Here are some suggestions for ensuring a successful project
Consider team projects, rather than individual ones. They allow talent to be spread out, as well as exposing students to working in diverse groups. More significant problems can be tackled, plus, there are fewer projects to grade!
- Provide solid educational reasons for including projects, and plan carefully when incorporating them into the course. A last-minute project that students regard as busywork is likely to result
in disaster. Students want freedom, but they also need boundaries. Give them a long list of acceptable projects or clear guidelines for the types of projects that are acceptable.
- Establish regular check-in points—starting when groups turn in project titles—to help monitor progress, because procrastination is the major problem encountered with projects. Periodic reports—from informal oral presentations to more formal oral and written reports—can help
keep students on track. By the second round of talks one of the groups will usually forge ahead; others will realize they are behind and will work to catch up. You might set aside several class periods to meet privately with each group, and to give them time to work together.
- Structure the project so that final reports have been rewritten at least once, which should produce much better quality. Have another group critique the project (for advice, not for a
grade), or give the students a grade based on their first submission that can improve with a rewritten version. Rewriting takes time, so the first version should be turned in at least two weeks before the end of classes.
- Make the project more appealing by using it instead of a final exam. Reduce grading complaints by allowing student input concerning the performance of team members. Decide the
overall project grade and then use the input from students to assign grades for each team member. There are no winners if an industrial team fails to produce, so the project grade should be the highest grade any group member can receive.
- Keep the topics fresh and interesting. If you're stuck for ideas, here are some to consider: Develop a Rube Goldberg machine. Do reverse engineering of common objects such as
bicycles or a coffee maker. Develop equipment to help disabled people. Write an equipment or software operation manual. Write a textbook chapter on an advanced topic. Develop a novel homework or quiz problem for this course.
If you make your course projects as innovative and as "real" as possible—for example, you can build
in economics by "charging" for consulting time from professors and for lab time—you'll have created an excellent way to assess your students' learning. And maybe they'll have a fond memory in addition to a good grade.
The authors' book, Teaching Engineering, is available
on the Web at