PBL as a way to Professional Practice

A survey of about 5,500 engineering students and recent graduates showed that many of them did not feel that they had a real understanding of what it means to be an engineer, or what their professional careers would actually involve.1 These students identified three main areas they felt that they were lacking:

  • communication, interpersonal and professional skills
  • teamwork
  • the ability to solve the more ambiguous, complex, and multi-faceted problems presented in the workplace

So if we want to better prepare our students for their careers  we must help them stretch beyond discipline specific knowledge by encouraging and assessing the skills associated with professional practice.

polytech education

We can break those skills down into three main categories. The top row contains discipline specific knowledge and skills. The middle row includes employability skills, and the bottom row recognizes the responsibilities that graduates have to the public, their employers, and their peers.

grad attributes

Our program chose to use Project Based Learning (PBL) to ensure that our students are meeting these attributes. There are four main characteristics that differentiate a project from a conventional learning activity.2 First there must be significant content where students apply and integrate key knowledge and skills. Secondly, there must be an appropriate level of rigour and complexity. A project must be open-ended, allowing students to develop more than one reasonable answer, and providing them with autonomy and choice as they work toward a solution. Finally, a project must be explorative where students are motivated to identify, research, and learn concepts and skills required to reach a solution.

PBL characteristics.JPG

There are three main types of PBL: project-centric, project-supported, and project-spline. In project-centric PBL projects “form the central and dominant component of the curriculum; the subject material studied is determined by the demands of the project”3 and emphasis is placed on process. In project-supported PBL projects focus on the application of the material studied in one or more separate courses delivered in a particular academic term. In project-spline PBL projects focus on the acquisition and development of project-related knowledge and skills and are delivered in a separate project class.

Types of PBL

Our Electronic Systems Engineering program’s PBL model is a hybrid of project-centric and project-supported. Our projects are designed to cross both course and discipline boundaries. Each academic term our students are challenged to complete two or three authentic, level-appropriate projects. In their final year they complete a self-selected capstone project. This approach encourages students to constantly think and work like engineers. They use standard techniques and practices for solving technical problems, hone their employability skills, and learn to make responsible decisions. All of this makes them highly employable. Feedback from our employers tells us that our students and graduates have the technical knowledge and skills, the ability to actively contribute to engineering teams and their on-going projects, and an awareness of the business needs necessary to make a product viable in today’s competitive marketplace.


As an example, one of our first year projects requires students to investigate whether or not the magnetic field generated by commonly used devices is harmful to humans. Over the course of five weeks students research health and safety regulations, design and build a magnetic field meter, design and conduct an experiment to measure the field generated by the selected device, analyze the collected data, compare their results to the research, and present their findings. This type of project takes students well beyond the technical into the realm of professional practice.

field meter project

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how to integrate projects into your course, program, or school.


[1] Atman, et. al. Enabling Engineering Student Success: The Final Report for the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education 2010

[2] Buck Institute of Education, “Project Design Rubric”, Project Based Learning

[3] Alistair Morgan, “Theoretical Aspects of Project-Based Learning in Higher Education”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 14: 66–78, 1983.