From concept to commercialisation: student learning in a sustainable engineering innovation project
Richards, Bryce S.
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An interdisciplinary sustainable design project that combines membrane technology with renewable energy to provide water for remote communities and developing countries was offered to students for voluntary participation. Through continuous design stages and improvements on several prototypes, laboratory testing and several field trials in Australia, and interactions with industry partners and funding agencies, the project has offered very important experience to students and contributes significantly to graduate attributes that are difficult to gain during traditional coursework education. Such initiatives offer an exciting addition to the environmental engineering curriculum and can be adapted to various teaching frameworks and topic areas. In addition to acquiring technical skills, the students gained skills in the areas of teamwork and interpersonal skills, project management, interdisciplinary skills, and confidence in interacting with non-engineers. A number of the students involved who have now graduated as well as peers were subsequently surveyed to evaluate student learning using critical incident questionnaires. One student felt that involvement in the project was more important than the entire engineering degree. Students also reported a boost in confidence, motivation, inspiration, pride of involvement, high degree of engagement, especially during field trips. One drawback was negative team experiences, caused by students who thought they should have been selected as project managers. However, this was described by a student (now in the workforce) as a representation of later office politics and as a good opportunity to develop character strength. Poor communication, team-building tools and lack of institutional support were additional issues needing addressing, as well as concerns from other academics that such activities could be to the detriment of other, more traditional, coursework-based learning activities. Significantly enhanced employment opportunities and extremely positive industry feedback were also noted. Industry emphasised the need for more project and time management skills.