Project introduction and background information
Challenge-Based Education (CBE) is at the core of the education strategy of Eindhoven University of Technology, where the goal is to have CBE as the main characteristic of the on-campus education by 2030. At the TU/e Innovation Space, Bachelor students are given the opportunity to carry out their Bachelor End Projects following a CBE approach, in multidisciplinary groups of 3-5 students, working on a real-world problems set by companies, student teams or the university itself . These are called ISBEPs, Innovation Space Bachelor End Projects. Participation in an active and student-centered learning environment such as CBE is expected to foster student motivation, study success, and retention. Moreover, students will develop important engineering skills: multidisciplinary collaboration with stakeholders and colleagues, problem identification and analysis, design of prototype solutions.
However, it has been noted that relatively few Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students have made use of this opportunity so far. This gives reason for concern, as the university intends to draw students from a wide range of disciplines to ISBEP, and raises the question how students from these fundamental disciplines can successfully participate in CBE projects .
Objective and expected outcomes
In this project we aim to increase the participation of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students in ISBEPs. During the first phase of the project, we investigated the affordances and constraints regarding the choice of ISBEP by Mathematics and Physics students. We did so by studying the BEP requirements for Mathematics and Applied Physics, and by interviewing, among others, departmental coordinators, educational directors, IS coordinators, and selected students.
The results from first phase have been mostly based on experiences, expectations and conjectures from our respondents and only very limited data has been available from students. Hence, during the second phase we will investigate and follow students’ experiences when doing their ISBEPs. We will also administer a survey to Applied Physics bachelor students attending either their 2nd or 3rd year to understand their potential interest in ISBEP.
Furthermore, during the second phase we will work closely with the Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics departments to collaborate towards the definition of ISBEP challenges that are both suitable and attractive to the respective departments.
The results of this project may be insightful not only for the Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics departments, but also for other departments that may see similarities in terms of affordances and constraints regarding ISBEP.
Results and learnings
From the interviews during the exploratory study (first phase) we identified several affordances and constraints regarding the choice of an ISBEP by Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students.
In terms of affordances, it appeared that important conditions to increase the participation of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students have been addressed. The respondents generally held a positive stance towards ISBEPs, and have recognised the potential and interest for some students to conduct an ISBEP on the basis of a CBE approach. In particular the experience could be valuable for those students pursuing an engineering-oriented career. Moreover, our respondents recognized that coaching students in an CBE environment requires different skills than coaching departmental bachelor end projects, but expected that interested supervisors could be found in the Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics departments. Finally, we found active involvement of Innovation Space and the departments to remove organizational hurdles for their students and to optimize communication.
However, we also found constraints that need to be considered. An important constraint was that it was not clear if and how ISBEP challenges could lead to mathematics of sufficient depth in terms of abstractness and proof. Mathematics, as a discipline in its own right, would suffer if it were reduced to a tool to be applied in other sciences and engineering subjects. This is in line with insights from the literature (e.g. Dahl, 2018), which also gives suggestions how mathematics can be made to fit in a Problem-based curriculum. To a lesser extent a similar reasoning applied to physics as a discipline.
Another constraint was that it may be difficult for Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students to see the potential contributions of their disciplines in a general challenge description.
Other constraints were related to students' unfamiliarity or lack of positive experiences with (multidisciplinary) collaborative group work, the difficulty for students to find an academic coach, a potentially increased workload for academic coaches, and misaligned communication. Some of these constraints, such as communication and organizational issues, have been taken up by the departments and are being addressed.
To attract Applied Mathematics students and to ensure the suitability of challenges it appears crucial to involve mathematicians at an early stage of challenge formulation.
Identifying the potential contributions of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics students to a challenge, and using language that is familiar to these disciplines in the challenge descriptions, could improve the accessibility of challenges for the students.
In the long term, student reflections on their identities as an engineer might help them make an informed decision regarding the choice of an CBE oriented or a departmental Bachelor End Project. In a curriculum that becomes increasingly oriented towards CBE, such reflections could start at an early stage in the bachelor programme. As part of this long-term orientation, it would help if the curricula would provide some opportunities for their students to engage in open-ended collaborative projects or challenges.