Initiatives and Innovation at SERC: Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning was a recurring theme throughout the week at SERC. Indeed it is a recurring theme throughout all sectors of education at the moment and is seen as a model which lends itself well to developing 21st century skills in learners. These skills include critical thinking, innovation, communication, collaboration, media and ICT literacy and self-regulation. In the case of vocational education it marries the theoretical with the practical.

During the week Matthias Hauer from OSZ IMT led two discussions on developing teachers capacity to facilitate project-based learning. He has carried out workshops in this area in the past and his paper on the topic can be found here. In this paper Matthias discusses the difference in the goals from educational projects and business projects and looks to bring the two closer inline with one another. The below is an excerpt from Matthius’s paper, Acquisition of “Vocational Competence” through Projects and Work Tasks:

The difference between an educational project and a business project is that at the core of an educational project is personal development while at the core of a business project is a cost-effective and customer-oriented perspective that is at the foreground of the project.  The results based focus in business projects, for example, projects with fixed resources, calculated in a defined time frame that is accepted by the customer (and therefore profitable) and delivers results, must be taken into account when acquiring vocational competence.”

On Thursday during our visit to Royal Mail, SERC showed us an example of using project-based learning which was really inspiring and could be replicated in other colleges and programmes.

At Royal Mail we met with Brendan Merrigan, an industrial development engineer,  now working with SERC. Brendan’s expertise in working as a contract engineer allow him to support students in tackling problems and using their engineering skills to problem solve and design possible solutions which can have real impact for local companies. Brendan has built up strong relationships with local enterprise over the years and used these, not alone to provide placement opportunities for SERC students but to build real-life projects also. Companies such as Royal Mail compile a list of problems they face, small to large, that they would like solved. One of the examples at Royal Mail was simply not knowing when brakes on a trolley were applied.  These trolleys were pushed around the operating floor by staff but as there was no way of easily knowing when the brake was activated on the trolley this posed a health and safety risk. This problem is shared with groups of students at the college and they consider solutions whilst being conscious of costs, time and safety. Students are given the opportunity to present their ideas to their tutors and peers and also to the company. In Royal Mail’s case they will often give the college the components to build prototypes and test these out. Some of these ideas have been transferred into actual solutions which has a hugely positive impact on the students involved.

These students then complete their placement at Royal Mail where they are mentored in their presentation, communication, and other soft skills. The company asks students to present to a number of staff in a boardroom setting early in the placement and later on towards the end of the placement. They gave examples of students who initially were very nervous making presentations but as the company mentored them and worked with them to develop their skills they could see a huge turnaround in a matter of weeks. This is an example of an effective way for the company and student to measure the impact of the work placement and to see growth in student confidence. Mentors at Royal Mail explained they simply do not accept negative attitudes, inappropriate dress, poor punctuality etc. from students on placement and very quickly explain this to students when necessary. Everything is treated in a very professional manner, really opening the students up to the expectations of the workplace.

We have heard from employers in all partner countries that often students on placement don’t appear to have confidence to ask questions and engage with others around them whilst on placement. This is similar to students who don’t have the confidence to make a formal presentation. These are skills which really need to be developed and students need to be encouraged to find their voice and articulate their ideas, questions and possible concerns whilst in the workplace. On more than one occasion employers described students who shrink into the background and simply wait to be instructed. During breaks students didn’t use this as an opportunity to get more familiar with staff in a more informal setting. One employer in Slovenia explained this is often a missed opportunity by students as he would always ask what staff thought about a certain person if he was to considering hiring them in the future.  Like with the projects it is beneficial to give students tasks to complete while on work placement. These tasks can be designed to encourage students to use their own initiative and engage and communicate with the people around them.

What could be transferred to other organisations?

  • Look to blend educational projects with business projects where there is a clear criteria and the end product should meet the goals in the project. Set out a rubric which clearly communicates the success criteria to students.
  • Invite local business people into the college to explain the dynamics of real-life projects in their workplaces and the skills students need exhibit to secure positions which seek these.
  • Speak with businesses in your area and ask them to share some challenges they face which the college could then investigate and propose solutions.
  • Give students tasks to complete whilst on work placement which encourage interaction and optimises the potential to develop and also learn.

Has anyone any other ideas from this?



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