Engineering all over the world is seen both as an art and a science. The science comprises the careful and knowledgeable use of scientific principles, physical materials, and disciplined design techniques to produce devices and systems, and their operating arrangements, to perform useful functions in a reliable and affordable way. These can range from motor vehicles to computer networks; from mobile phone to coffee-makers; from credit cards to power stations. The art lies in creating new directions in human affairs by perceiving innovative applications of scientific knowledge, combining different fields of knowledge in unique ways, developing new technologies and managing technical resources to produce new outcomes.
In principle, engineering is about developing, providing and maintaining infrastructure, goods and services for industry and the community, and about helping to identify and implement directions for the future. Professional engineers normally work in interdisciplinary teams and are supposed to take responsibility for engineering projects. This includes the reliable functioning of all materials and technologies used; their integration to form a complete and self-consistent system and all interactions between the technical system and the environment (customers and society as a whole) in which it functions [1, p. 3].
Modern engineers should be able to apply professional knowledge and skills to solve engineering problems and be effective team members capable of communicating ideas clearly as well as demonstrating good interpersonal and social skills. Following the policy of the European Union that is aimed at facilitating students’ autonomy and supports the strategy of life-long learning and continuous professional development, educators all over the world need to change the way they teach students and the way students learn. What we mean is that the teaching process needs modifying with a focus being shifted from the teacher-centredness on the learner-centredness. So students need to take charges for planning their own learning process, actively participating in it and taking responsibility for their achievements and outcomes.
Another important thing dealing with an image of successful engineers is connected with their ability to speak English as a language of international communication owing to the globalization of the world economy and widespread use of information technologies as a means of establishing contacts and setting up businesses. Logically, we are able to combine two things together – that is, teaching engineering subjects and practicing English. As most engineering subjects nowadays are taught by means of doing multidisciplinary group projects which are based on problem solving and facilitating hands-on experience, it seems sensible that engineering students could only benefit from the way that they are taught these subjects in English.
English courses are part of engineering curriculum in Russian engineering and technology universities and according to the standard requirements adopted by the Russian Ministry of Education graduates are supposed to be able to use English actively and fluently with practical communicative purposes that will allow them to be members of international professional community. A course in English for Professional Purposes being part of engineering curriculum has been chosen by us as a medium for teaching transferable skills to engineering students.
The UK standard for professional engineering competence requires that university graduates must satisfy the following criteria:
Knowledge and Understanding: they must be able to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of essential facts, concepts, theories and principles of their engineering discipline, and its underpinning science and mathematics. They must have an appreciation of the wider multidisciplinary engineering context and its underlying principles. They must appreciate the social, environmental, ethical, economic and commercial considerations affecting the exercise of the engineering judgement.
Intellectual Abilities: they must be able to apply appropriate quantitative science and engineering tools to the analysis of problems. They must be able to demonstrate creative and innovative ability in the synthesis of solutions and in formulating designs. They must be able to comprehend the broad picture and thus work with an appropriate level of detail.
Practical skills: they must possess practical engineering skills acquired through, for example, work carried out in laboratories and workshops; in industry through supervised work experience; in individual and group project work; in design work; and in the development and use of computer software in design, analysis and control.
General transferable skills: they must have developed transferable skills that will be of value in a wide range of situations. These include problem solving, communication, and working with others, as well as the effective use of general IT facilities and information retrieval skills. They also include planning self-learning and improving performance, as the foundation for lifelong learning and continuous professional development [2, p. 11].
In our opinion, transferable skills are best taught in a variety of situations that simulate realistic job-related practices and require from engineering students to apply knowledge and skills to solve problems or analyze case studies. And on top of that, they discuss these issues in English and are able to communicate with peers and formulate their ideas clearly and confidently. This leads us to the idea of introducing project-based learning into the process of learning English for Professional Purposes.
Project-based learning, in our view, is an educational technology which provides opportunities for learners to be exposed to a balanced combination of individual, pair and group activities that are aimed at developing proficiency in English as well as practicing interpersonal and social skills. Logically, we should start with the definition of a project.
A project has distinctive attributes, which distinguish it from ongoing work or business operations. First of all, projects are temporary in nature. They are not an everyday business process and have definitive start dates and end dates. This characteristic is important because a large part of the project effort is dedicated to ensuring that the project is completed at the appointed time. Secondly, projects exist to bring about a product or service that has not existed before. In this sense, a project is unique. Unique means that this is new, this has never been done before. And finally, the project is completed when its goals and objectives are accomplished. It is these goals that drive the project and all the planning and implementation efforts are undertaken to achieve them.
There is also the definition of the project given by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). It defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates a definite beginning and end. The end is reached when the project’s objectives have been achieved or when the project is terminated because its objectives will not or cannot be met, or when the need for the project no longer exists [3, p. 23].
When we talk about projects as an educational technology, we mean a way of cognition, a way of getting knowledge or acquiring a skill, a method of learning and a means of reaching the goals and objectives of the learning process. In other words, projects are used to achieve some educational aims by analyzing and solving a certain problem and producing a realistic and tangible product that has practical value and application in real-life situations. To reach the target, learners should be able to think independently and creatively, come up with their own ideas and solve problems, making use of knowledge from a variety of subject areas, abilities to predict results and likely consequences of possible solutions.
Project work is based on the important pedagogical principles: learner-centred approach, autonomous learning, cooperative learning, and experiential learning. Learner-centred approach is aimed at enhancing the learners’ cognitive activity with a focus on their interests and needs concerning the choice of content and forms of expression while doing an assignment and at the same time determining the learner responsibility for the outcomes. Involvement in team work and personal participation of a student in doing a project assignment add a new creative impulse and perform a role of a motivating factor aimed at reaching learning outcomes.
Learner autonomy gives students an opportunity to plan and manage their learning time to reach the learning objectives independently as well as take charges (responsibility) for their learning achievements and outcomes.
Cooperative learning helps to facilitate the interpersonal relationships in a team, on the one hand, and developing the personality of a learner, on the other. Being members of a temporary working team students learn to combine individual and team work, and as such master social and interpersonal skills. Cooperative learning is a generic term for various small group interactive instructional procedures. Students work together on academic tasks in small groups to help themselves and their teammates learn together. In general, cooperative learning methods share the following five characteristics.
Students work together on common tasks or learning activities that are best handled through group work.
Students work together in small groups containing two to five members.
Students use cooperative, pro-social behavior to accomplish their common tasks or learning activities.
Students are positively interdependent. Activities are structured so that students need each other to accomplish their common tasks or learning activities.
Students are individually accountable or responsible for their work or learning.
Experiential learning or content-based learning by doing a multidisciplinary project serves the purpose of simulating a realistic professional activity. The focus of a content-based learning is on the topic or subject matter. They learn about this subject using the language they are trying to learn, rather than their native language, as a tool for developing knowledge and so they develop their linguistic ability in the language and master soft skills. To sum up the features of project-based learning, we should formulate advantages of the educational technology and identify potential problems that it may have.
Being involved in project-based learning, students will be able to
use the language to fulfil a real purpose, which can make students both more independent and confident;
develop a much wider knowledge of the world through content-based learning which can feedback into improving and supporting their general educational needs;
develop very valuable critical thinking skills by taking information from different sources, re-evaluating and restructuring it that can then be transferred to other subjects;
develop their collaborative skills, which can have great social value, work as part of a team and take responsibility for the results of their joint activity;
solve problems, using techniques for generating and sorting out ideas (brainstorming, mind-mapping, lateral thinking and others);
communicate ideas clearly and meaningfully;
do self- and peer assessment;
But it may also happen that groups of students come across certain problems, for example:
Groups may not function efficiently and there may appear certain problems relating to group unity and communication inside the team.
Students may face certain psychological difficulties, suffering from stress and overload.
Teachers should be prepared to play more roles than required in a traditional context.
There may come up a problem of a biased judgement or assessment of the individual performance.
It may also happen that the project team runs into serious difficulties (some members become downright uncooperative, others feel they lack confidence or are getting bored), in this case the teacher has to step in and lead an open discussion of what has gone wrong and what can be done about it. The most important thing about successful group work is connected with the idea of strong commitment and personal involvement that can be learnt in the course of doing projects [4, p. 6]. Anyway, project-based learning has proved to have positive effects on students’ motivation, language and communication skills, and ability to function in groups, decision-making abilities, autonomy and critical thinking - all those skills that are referred to as transferable skills.
Australian Engineering Competency Standards. Third Edition. November 2003. ISBN 0 85825 771 8
The accreditation of higher education programmes. UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence // www.engc.org.uk
Davidson Frame J., Managing Projects in Organizations, Wiley, New York 1995.
Fried-Booth D.L. Project Work, Oxford University Press 1997. ISBN 0 19 437092 5