This paper is a report of the experiences of a small School of Engineering in the use of group projects as a teaching methodology.

Burnie College of TAFE in North Western Tasmania has for the last five years undertaken projects as part of it's teaching in the School of Engineering. The first project was initiated in 1984 when the author and his students built a car and competed in the Shell Mileage Marathon in Sydney.

Since then, the school has built cars, pedal boats and is currently engrossed in the latest project, a human powered aircraft. This craft, described as a "push-bike with wings" is a low cost, ultra-light, flying machine which is powered by pedalling. It has become known as a SKYCYCLE.

The main aim of this project, as with it's predecessors is to improve the learning process for Engineering students. Engineering is a demanding and relatively rigid course of study and the SKYCYCLE project introduces an element of challenge, camaraderie and fun into learning.

While projects as such may be difficult to define and distinguish from other teaching methodologies, a few characteristics seem to emerge. A project is a planned, medium to long term, activity which aims to enhance student learning beyond that capable in a normal classroom setting. It's objectives are related to those of specific courses but may well include significant additional objectives. The activities are student oriented and are based on group work. This latter point, while not usually regarded as essential to projects, is to those being considered in this paper. Individual projects, while being extremely valuable, are not the focus of this discussion. Projects aim at
production of a product, either a tangible object such as a piece of machinery, art work, text or performance such as a play, dance etc.

The nature of the project is crucial. There are certain guide-lines which may identify suitable projects, particularly in the field of Engineering.

  1. Ideally it should result in a tangible product.
    Because Engineering is largely an academic study, the project provides students with their only opportunity to produce tangible results. It was suggested by mature-age students in the project team that many younger students these days appear to lack experience of the satisfaction which comes with creative construction. "A lot of students are just discovering making", he said.

  2. It must appeal to the students and capture their imagination. They need to see it as challenging, achievable, exciting and fun. As Keith Sherwin said (1975) when writing on "Man-Powered aircraft as students projects", suggests: clearly for anyone to get involved in such a project the 'fun' element must be sufficiently attractive to make work worthwhile' (147).

  3. The project must have an identifiable end point which is achievable within the appropriate time-frame. What that appropriate time-frame is will depend on many factors such as the nature of the student group, the resources available, the experience of the project leader. The SKYCYCLE project will in fact run into it's third year by completion
    day of May, 1990. This has not caused a problem, with students entering and leaving the project according to current students. New ones are quickly initiated into the project and exciting students (those leaving the College) are encouraged to continue their input.

  4. While a project may be quite complex and lengthy such as the SKYCYCLE, it is important that it can be broken into more discrete, shorter time-frame tasks which students can perceive as being readily achievable. This is important not only for the motivation of the students but also for the organisation of the work load. Some of the
    potentially major learning outcomes of project work are those associated with group work, such as sharing, leadership etc.
    For this to happen there need to be many small groups working at any one time. The SKYCYCLE project has had numerous such sub-groups working on specific tasks such as computer design of the craft, testing of exotic fabrics, building the cockpit, design and construction of the propeller etc.

  5. The project should relate to the course(s) of study which it aims to enhance and also to the industry for which study is preparing students. On this latter point Sherwin suggests "The complexity of the design and the required organisation should be comparable with projects found in industry. (p.145)
    The project must be seen by the students to be relevant to their studies, in a broad rather than narrow sense. They need to perceive it as being "real" Engineering in this case, and the relevance may relate to future industry employment as much as to current studies. The SKYCYCLE directly relates to students' courses in the areas of materials,
    materials testing, CAD and mechanical technology. References by teachers are often made between classroom and project room.

  6. One of the advantages of the SKYCYCLE project, and it's predecessors, has been it's ability to involve students in a very wide range of learning experiences. These include planning and design, computer aided drafting, research, organisation of resources, scheduling, construction, testing, re-design, public relations as well as very detailed technical skills specific to Engineering. Thus, a project should provide breadth of experience and an opportunity for students to experiment with many learning situations.

  7. A real plus for the Burnie College projects has been their ability to enthuse the local populous. This is no doubt due partly to the personalities of the people involved but also due to the nature of the projects. The construction of a very different type of vehicle: a pedal boat, a minimum fuel car and a human powered aeroplane are projects likely to catch the attention of the community, particularly when the production is linked to public competition. Both the car and the boat were entered in contests and the SKYCYCLE will attempt to break a flying record. While such involvement in very public competition is not necessary, it may be of benefit to consider possible public involvement or at least enthusiasm when considering a project.
  8. .
    Sherwin suggests another characteristic which may be desirable in a project, namely, the lack of ready-made answers. Not only should a project provide a challenge to students but it should provide an opportunity for creativity. As he put it in regard to man-powered flight: "There was, and still is, no standard solution to the design of a man-powered aircraft, so it was argued that the students would have to use their initiative and could not simply copy existing designs" (p. 145). This is suggesting that a project should never consist solely of following someone else's instructions on how something is to be done. There must be problems inherent in the project which require creative solutions.

The nature of the student body needs to be considered when selecting a project. The latter must not be gender specific if a mixed class is involved and it must provide tasks for the full range of experience and abilities. It must be able to be completed with the limited knowledge and skills of the teacher and students. However complex the building of a man-powered aircraft may sound, no-one involved in the SKYCYCLE project had any previous expertise in aerodynamics or aircraft construction.

The advantages to students taking part in project work would need a thorough research project to identify and quantify and this paper makes no claim to attempt such. Observation and anecdotal evidence would suggest that benefits can be roughly divided into three categories: the development of knowledge and skills which will assist students in their studies, knowledge, attitudes and perhaps skills which will assist students in later employment in the field of Engineering, and personal development attributes.

The development of knowledge and skills relating to courses has been mentioned previously. Those relating to a career in the vocation are very important. It is here the value of group work is particularly relevant.

Through working in various groups the students come to learn to share knowledge, assign tasks, communicate, assume leadership roles, delegate, accept responsibility and share ownership.

A crucial attitude in the field of Engineering and perhaps in many Sciences, is trial and error. Failure, re-design and development is central to the SKYCYCLE project.. Apparently many young students find the concept of first time failure very difficult to accept. A commonly held mistaken assumption of beginning Engineering students is that if something is built to specifications, it will work the first time. Such students need to learn that success usually results after numerous modifications. Some students have a real fear of failure; "What if it doesn't work!". An achievable project may very well teach these students tenacity in the face of apparent failure. Project work needs to be an exploratory process for students. They need to not only accept mistakes, but regard them as crucial to ultimate success. To this purpose, the teacher must allow mistakes to happen. An essential attitude amongst both project teachers and students is an acceptance of failure. Thus, students are discouraged from being critical of each other.

Personal development is encouraged in project work in the form of satisfaction with completion of a task, in having achieved an objective, in being part of a team. There may be growth of self esteem and confidence through the encouragement of initiative, creativity, group and individual enterprise.

The mode of arranging project work would vary from one situation to another but that practised at Burnie may be of relevance to others.

Students who participate in the SKYCYCLE project range from, Preparatory Engineering students to those enrolled in the two Associate Diplomas Mechanical and Civil Engineering. The age range is from 15 to 45 and on these there are around 15 students in the group.

In previous years several projects have been conducted concurrently but the SKYCYCLE project is large enough to involve everyone. Participation in the project is voluntary but almost all eligible full-time students choose to be involved. Three hours per week are timetabled, plus students spend much of their own time working on the project.

Because the project vision and overall objectives are agreed upon, the teacher locates students to groups and groups to tasks. A group leader is nominated either by the group or the teacher but the leadership may change several times. In the initial stages of the project students are discouraged from drifting in and out of groups. Activities may range over various tasks such as computer work, design drawing, workshop activities, library research, and will be physically spread over various locations. After the initial stages, students may elect to work independently for a period of time. If a student becomes tired of the one task he/she may move on to another. There is no doubt that the success of a project as a learning experience is largely dependent upon the staff. As well as the mountain of preliminary planning which is involved there is the exhausting requirement of maintaining the commitment and enthusiasm of everyone: staff, students, college administration, industry and teachers. If a group of teachers is involved there must be genuine commitment to the project, a team approach to managing the work and a total lack of jealousy. It is vital that the project leader be fascinated by the project and has a vision about Engineering. He/she should be engrossed in the challenge of the task, the creative art of Engineering, the involvement of the students and the ultimate success of the project. Perhaps no other teaching methodology allows the value of such a teacher to be fully utilised.

A perhaps unanticipated consequence of the SKYCYCLE project and it's predecessors, is the high public profile it has brought to the College and the School of Engineering. Numerous community groups have come to hear of the project and to express support for it in one way or another. The list of sponsors is in excess of a dozen and includes a wide range of Companies, Organisations and Individuals. Some of these sponsors have provided substantial cash grants and others materials and equipment. What is particularly encouraging is that several of these donations have been totally unsolicited. The degree of public enthusiasm for the project is apparently extensive. Part of the reason for this may well be that the project leader, the School and the College have developed a reputation for involvement through past projects. All of those, namely the building of cars and pedal-powered boats, have involved the School and the students in public competition. In 1986 the car was entered in the Shell Mileage Marathon, in 1987 the group competed in Sydney, in 1986 and 1987 the pedal boat built by the students competed successfully in local regattas. Plans for the SKYCYCLE include a very public attempt to break the Australian man-powered flight records.

As well, projects feature often in both local and national newspaper, magazines and television articles. (Panorama, September, 1988)

This capacity to sell the project to the public may not be essential, but is appears to add a sense of purpose and achievement for the students and attract sponsorship. The College receives valuable publicity and Engineering attains a level of awareness in the eyes of the college which it is unlikely to have otherwise. It is hoped that this will attract more students to the School. Generating public awareness and enthusiasm is integral to this projects end, the project group develops and maintains contact with individuals and organisations which can assist the project. A professional standard publication keeps interested up with the progress of the project, the personalities involved (students), the assistance received and the expected outcomes. The newsletter is published by the College and distributed not only within the campus but also to interstate contacts.

A feature of the project is the exchange of ideas between colleagues in different parts of the world. The project group has made contact with people in various aspects of aviation all around the world, such as Dr. Paul MaCready, the American who designed the first aircraft to be powered by humans and flown across the English Channel. The students have been drawn in to academic exchange of ideas which often only happens at post graduate level.

It is no doubt that the value of a teaching institution running successful projects such as this is immense. There is also no doubt that the risks associated with it are high and the cost in human energy is enormous.


Sherwin K. (1975) Man Powered Flight. Argus Books.

Skycycle Newsletter: School engineering, Burnie College of TAFE.

Back to home