Because each project inevitably presents a unique set of challenges and problems, the tools students gain in class may only provide part of any given solution. Further exploration and learning becomes a critical part of student success. In several engineering programs at Conestoga College (Kitchener-Waterloo area), educators have even taken this kind of learning a step further, pairing students with industry partners to work on real-world applications as an integral part of their curriculum.
“Our project-based programs provide students with the immediate opportunity of applying theory to practice and learning by doing,” says Julia Biedermann, Executive Dean for Conestoga’s School of Engineering & IT.
“By integrating industry-driven, real world projects into the curriculum, our students are very engaged in the learning process and get a great sense of accomplishment with their project solutions.”
In a variety of ways, the Electronic Systems Engineering (ESE) and Mechanical Systems Engineering (MSE) programs at Conestoga aim to “teach students by doing.” ESE offers a highly integrated, project-based curriculum, with all of the courses in a given semester combining into a single final project, while students in MSE regulalrly complete large projects throughout their degree, including an eight-month project in year three, which often contains a component of applied research. According to co-op employers, students coming out of these programs tend to become productive contributors on their teams very quickly.
Ig Kolenko, former ESE Chair and current Director of the NSERC-funded Centre for Smart Manufacturing, notes the well-rounded benefits of project-based learning. “This supports growth in numerous graduate attribute areas,” he explains, “such as investigation, problem analysis, design, teamwork, communications, professionalism, use of engineering tools, impact on society, and more.”
To support success in the ESE program, faculty meet weekly to review the progress of the students and the projects. Each semester’s projects grow in complexity and open-endedness until the final two semesters of year four, when students embark on a capstone project. Several of these projects have won the Conestoga College Mastercraft Award in recent years. This college-wide competition recognizes student achievement of excellence in program-related skills as demonstrated through the capstone project, with only one award given for the whole college at each of the spring and fall convocations. Recipients are formerly recognized at their convocation ceremony.
The year-three projects undertaken by students in the MSE program involve partnering with industry. Students focus on a real-life design problem relating to automation in manufacturing, and their solutions often end up incorporated into the partner’s businesses. Notably, projects in the program have regularly received funding through the Ontario Centres of Excellence, a non-profit that drives the development of Ontario’s economy by helping create new jobs, products, services, technologies and businesses.
Hamid Karbasi, a former MSE faculty member and now Conestoga’s NSERC IRCC Chair of Advanced Recycling Technologies for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, notes that students using project-based approaches enjoy significant educational impacts, including the development and integration of new engineering curriculum in advanced robotics, applied real-time control systems, sensor technologies, artificial intelligence, and new product design for the circular economy.
Biedermann notes that integrating project-based learning into the curriculum and providing students with the opportunity to work on applied research projects benefits not only the students but also local industries and future employers.
“Industrial partners are typically small/medium enterprises with very limited research and development budgets,” she says. “Through applied research projects with Conestoga, they get access to innovative solutions with low risk and affordable investments.”
She also says that the benefits of the program’s unique features extend to the greater community after students graduate, noting that “Employers of our co-op students and graduates benefit from individuals who have been trained to think creatively and be resourceful in developing problem solutions with a very hands-on approach.”