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Collaborative Education Adds to SENG Student Experience
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Fall 2013  No.24
Collaborative Education Adds to SENG Student Experience
Groundbreaking studies on the development of teamwork skills and peer learning at the School of Engineering are providing insight into effective, engaging pedagogies
The School of Engineering's pioneering Center for Engineering Education Innovation (E²I) has been involved throughout the planning for the move from a three-year to a four-year degree and delivery of the new undergraduate curriculum, applying education research to develop pedagogy and assessment approaches that support student-centric learning and outcome-based education. "Our goal is to build a community that is conducive for teaching and learning," said Prof Neil Mickleborough, Director of E²I.
To date, E²I's research on undergraduate engineering education has focused on teamwork development through cooperative learning, and the use of rubrics as assessment tools. Current engineering courses often involve team projects but teamwork skills may not be developed through these activities. This is partly due to the lack of training to allow students to work effectively in a collaborative environment, leading to one or two students doing most of the group's work, or individual components just being pieced together.
In an earlier study, E²I researchers investigated the systematic development of teamwork skills in a cohort of engineering students throughout their three-year undergraduate education. Currently, the E²I team is involved in an ongoing study of peer learning from different peer groups. 
In the former study, E²I researchers found that student awareness of teamwork, for example the need to resolve conflict, improved significantly after systematic development through: explicit instruction, opportunities to practice, and constructive feedback. Students also responded to conflict resolution using a confrontational approach, an unexpected result as similar studies reported participants from Asian regions typically favor cooperative methods such as smoothing and compromising. But E²I researchers believe the high level of trust and the good relationships between team members likely made it easier for students to discuss conflicts openly and productively.
This research on the systematic development of teamwork skills was spearheaded by E²I's founding director, the late Prof Edmond Ko, and scholarly work on cooperative learning continues to be one of the Center's main research areas.
"Our approach to applying engineering education research is to first develop a course and simultaneously monitor it to conduct research. We then revise the course based on the research findings," Prof Mickleborough said.
E²I's research on peer learning is primarily conducted through the "Engineering Solutions to Grand Challenges of the 21st Century" undergraduate course. A key finding from this work is that a multi-level approach to peer learning is effective in developing engaging pedagogies.
In this course, students work in teams to evaluate and develop a potential solution to a "grand challenge" posed by experts. In addition to the course instructor, the teams are supported by trained peer tutors and reference librarians. Students have said they appreciated the cooperative problem solving environment and the chance to learn from peers at different levels.
"This education process allows peer tutors to be the 'teacher'," Prof Mickleborough said. "Students in effect take charge of learning – which is in line with lifelong learning – an important component of the HKUST education philosophy. 
"This format at the undergraduate level is unique and has not been successfully completed elsewhere in other institutions. The timely feedback that students receive from course instructors, peer tutors, and reference librarians contributes greatly to the learning opportunities in this course."
E²I's recent work shows elements that can facilitate effective learning experiences, and may be applicable to the design of courses that incorporate professional skills training. The Center takes an iterative approach to engineering education research and curriculum development. "We assess everything that we do and the innovative components are researched," Prof Mickleborough said. "Issues are solved with monitoring and research."