Development and evaluation of open-ended learning activities to support chemical engineering students' development

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

There are myriad challenges in developing a stimulating yet supportive curriculum in many subject areas, and recent shifts in course entry demographics and employer expectations have made this especially challenging in chemical engineering. As a discipline, there has been a gender shift in recent years towards greater women student representation at undergraduate level and an increase in global industry sector demand for chemical engineering graduates. This has raised issues of inclusion, to allow women students to participate equally in learning activities and wider opportunities, as well as those of graduate skills development, tempered by reports from the Confederation of Business Industry, which indicate that employers are dissatisfied with the skill sets offered by graduates.This work sets out to address these concerns through evaluation of active learning and makes recommendations regarding integrated learning, where group work is used to develop students' professional competencies in tandem with their transferable skills. Engineering education has developed over the years to include many instances of group based working that focusses on problem based learning, however, the full extent of the impact that this may have on students’ development is little understood or studied. This thesis explores the role of problem-based learning in facilitating students' engagement with specific components of a chemical engineering degree within UK Higher Education, including surveys of staff and student perceptions of group working and skills development, statistical evaluation of student attainment and appraisal of course (re)design.Despite significant group work and problem based learning focussed on developing openended working, teaching staff identified issues with students' abilities to deal with such problems in chemical engineering and to accept open-endedness itself. By identifying openendedness as a threshold concept, it has been possible to study the impact that the timeline of teaching has on student development and achievement. This work presents a strategy for vertical alignment of teaching within the chemical engineering degree to support student development and foster student confidence and autonomy.Within this context, the use of group working is key and the thesis also investigates the role of tutors within this educational framework and how such activities impact on the inclusion of women in engineering subjects. Additional work to redevelop early years teaching to address the identified threshold concept and, specifically, its role in the capstone design project is reported and students' perceptions of skills development has been investigated to understand the impact that working in such an environment has on the transferable skill sets of these cohorts.The insights gained show that tutor supported problem based learning can be key in nurturing critical evaluation skills in students, often requiring them to explain their reasoning and work with unknown quantities. The role of women students in group working changes with their increased awareness of social expectations to adapt to normalised views of women's roles; this happens early in their University career and sets working parameters for the remainder of their degrees, so addresses the early imbalance in role assignment that may be observed. The successful incorporation of problem based learning activities in early years helps students overcome the liminality that results from open-ended working, with wider impact, beyond the classroom, in providing advanced skill sets and working practices that will enhance employability.Students demonstrate increased engagement, mitigated stress, bolstered confidence and reduced confusion, while student retention is also improved. By surveying current students and graduates, a link between experiential practice and high skills c
Date of Award1 Mar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SupervisorKatarzyna Sypek (Supervisor) & Mark Haw (Supervisor)

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