ECM Faculty Focus
Newspapers are full of doom and gloom because editors know that fear and worry sell more issues than reassurance and good tidings. The same principle can be seen in the way the latest fashion in education is sometimes presented to us at university. With a great noise of trumpets we are told to do some new thing, and that the old things we know are not up to scratch. So I would like to present integrated learning not as a fad, but as a name for something we already do and are even quite good at.
Integrated learning is actually a tautology of sorts because all learning is necessarily integrative. It is about making connections: between neurons, between concepts, between theory and practice, between self-image and professional life. We who teach make use of this principle at various scales.
When teaching a given concept, we try hard to use examples that are within the student's experience and the closer the better. Within a unit we set up various activities that are not random, they are connected. By attending a site visit, say to a power plant and then by doing some tutorial problems about steam or electricity, the whole of the understanding becomes greater than the sum of the parts - in fact more like the product of the parts. The design of the units for a degree is also integrated because we plan the appearance of models, concepts and ways of working as a more or less logical and constructive sequence.
We now use the phrase 'integrated learning' in our Faculty to mean teaching in which there is richness in the types of learning experiences and there are explicit and designed links among the experiences. As an example, students might be challenged to solve a design problem, with a well-targeted lecture series supporting them as they go and with industry mentors as part of the project teams.
It is integrated learning because it gives the students reasons to extend themselves simultaneously in several academic and professional areas and support to do so. It can be achieved within a unit but I think the real power of the idea is seen when applied to a substantial group of units such as our Foundation units under 3+2.
Consider the old problem of learning mathematics. Ideally students will get excited about mathematical methods such as Laplace transforms and differential equations simply because they are beautiful and powerful. However we know very well that only 10% of a class fall into that category. Therefore, we have to somehow interest the 90% who would rather do something else.
Maths becomes for them an external, arbitrary hurdle. One historical attack on this situation has been to teach mathematics with examples drawn from specific engineering disciplines. The learners can then see the maths used to do something real which is aligned to their own life narrative. We already do this and I think there is a lot of willingness to do more of it.
Now suppose that we define some project work for the students requiring use of the maths to do some real analysis of, say, an electrical system and suppose that we connect the student teams to appropriate academics who know the maths very well and to other academics or mentors who know the practice very well. In this example the integration is in the designed project relationships that give students reasons to pay careful attention to more than one type of knowledge.
Several new learning spaces will open in our Faculty near the end of the year.The MILC and the Clough First Year Centre are now under way. These spaces will support integrated learning simply by giving students a place to go to collaborate on existing assessments.
However, we hope for much more. In the case of the MILC there will be co-located studio space, student clubs, team rooms, coffee, wireless internet, technical supervision and light prototyping facilities. Students will have integrated learning experiences as they use the technical facilities in service of research, community service, artistic or project goals, under guidance of course.
Industry mentors will lead project work, increasing student contact with the values and methods of industry. Units that have no need of the workshop facilities can still send students there to talk, to meet supervisors, to meet each other, or to use specialised equipment.
There is now a significant effort in our Faculty to increase the richness of the connections between the planned Foundation units, and also between those and the Discipline Stream units. The greatest resource in this development is the deep experience of individual academics, who have long used integration as a principle for design of their teaching.
Dr Nathan Scott, Senior Lecturer, Mechanical Engineering