From Conventional to Non-conventional Laboratory: Electrical Engineering Students Perceptions

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From Conventional to Non-conventional Laboratory: Electrical

Engineering  Students’  Perception

s

Nur Ayuni Shamsul Bahri

a

*, Naziha Ahmad Azli

b

, Narina Abu Samah

c

aNur Ayuni Shamsul Bahri, Centre of Engineering Education, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Malaysia bNaziha Ahmad Azli,Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Malaysia

cNarina Abu Samah, Faculty of Education, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia,Malaysia

Abstract

Since 2007, the curriculum of a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) program offered at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) has included a laboratory course which is designed to be problem or project based. This is in comparison to the previous conduct of the same laboratory that is procedural based. With the former, the active learning approach has provided the students with more opportunities to explore and solve a given problem or project in a team and devising their own experimental procedure instead of carrying out the tasks of a given experiment in a procedural manner as instructed in a laboratory handout. To date no proper study has been made in assessing the impact of this new laboratory approach on the students themselves. This paper presents the analysis made on the effect of the laboratory course on the students that is based on a sample of students' opinions and perceptions. The results of the analysis have indicated that the non-conventional laboratory course introduced in the Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) program is  well  accepted  by  the  students  and  has  brought  positive  effects  not  only  on  the  students’  learning  but  also on developing various skills that are important for graduating engineers.

Keywords: Laboratory, problem-based, project-based

1.Introduction

Practical or technical skill is one of the crucial skills in engineering sectors. Engineering itself is a practical discipline that needs the  “hand-on practice”  as  a  key  to  understand and solve some unpredictable real world problems. Thus, in ensuring that the graduating engineers possess this skill, laboratory courses have always been included in any engineering curriculum design whether as a stand-alone course or embedded in the relevant engineering courses. Besides, ABET (2012) has clearly stated in its program outcomes 3(b) which is the need for engineering programs to demonstrate that their students attain to design and conduct experiments as well as to analyze and interpret data. This outcome justifies the need for multidisciplinary skills such as practical skill, team working and problem solving skill among engineering students upon graduation which can be successfully developed through laboratory practice. Thus the importance of a laboratory course and its advantages in enhancing the skills and knowledge of engineering students cannot be denied.

Through laboratory courses, students can transfer and practice the theoretical knowledge that they have learned in class into the laboratory work (Kamilah, 2012). Its help the students to have better understanding on the basic concept of certain engineering equipment function and this can successfully be developed after a series of experiments have been conducted which require the students to operate and analyze the derivable data.

At present, many studies have been done especially in designing suitable instructional approach that can be used in ensuring the effectiveness of laboratory courses conducted for engineering students to improve their learning. Johnstone et al. (1994) reported that previous traditional or conventional laboratory only requires little involvement of students’

knowledge. Students have been provided by the experiments procedure and can just follow and solve with less knowledge about it. This has led to many arguments on the effectiveness of the conventional laboratory practices in enhancing not only the students’skills, but also their learning.

In this 21st century, the conventional laboratory practices have slightly changed to non-conventional laboratory design that is more focused on  developing  students’  learning, practical skill and students’  participation  in  a  team  using  

active learning approach in the form of for example case study, project or problem-based. This paper presents the results of a study conducted on the effect of a non-conventional laboratory course particularly the Problem/Project-based Laboratory course or known as PBLab which is one of the core courses in the curriculum of a Bachelor of Engineering

*NurAyuniShamsulBahri.

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(Electrical) program offered at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) on the students by looking at their perception towards the course after having completed it.

2.Conventionalversus Non-conventional Laboratory

Previously, laboratory courses have mainly been conducted in a conventional way of which it is very much inclined towards teacher-centered approach. With such approach, teachers or educators play the role as a giver while the students passively receive the knowledge without contributing more to it (Huba and Freed, 2000). In the context of a laboratory, according to Kelly, O.C. and Finlayson, O.E. (2007), a traditional or teacher-centered laboratory has been conducted by giving the students each step of the procedure of the experiments and they are expected to exactly follow the procedure. This  type  of  laboratory  activities  is  often  referred  to  as  a  ‘recipe  lab’  (Domin,1999).Sometimes in a‘recipe lab’, students would be carrying out the same experiments that have been conducted by their seniors and with such scenario; there is a tendency for them to refer to the results that have been obtained by the previous students. This in turn encourages passive contribution of the students in conducting the laboratory experiments. This issue is supported by Johnstone et al. (1994)which highlights that “students can be successful in a laboratory course even with little understanding about what they are doing”.  In addition although the activities conducted in a traditional laboratory do allow inexperienced students to develop their understanding on how to use the relevant devices and conduct the laboratory work (Garratt, 1997)the transferability skill to apply knowledge and concept that they have learned in designing the experiments is in fact decreased.

In recent years engineering education seems inclined towards promoting the active learning approach which engages students more in the learning process. In short, according to Prince, M. (2004) active learning is a teaching process that naturally forces students to think at what they are doing without directly following the steps. Besides, active learning is often contrasted to the traditional approach where students passively receive information from the educators without being actively engaged in it. There are many active learning approaches that have been widely used nowadays but, the more prominent ones are case-based, project or problem-based learning approach. Several studies have indicated the success of these active Teaching and Learning (T & L) approaches  in  enhancing  students’  skill  and  learning  including in laboratory settings.

A study by Wood (1996) has reported that the students were more confident in applying their theoretical knowledge and willing to solve challenging problems after they went through the class lessons that used the Problem-based Learning (PBL) approach. Besides, Caravan (2008) also examined the PBL approach applied in electrical engineering programs in the UK; the results showed that the students preferred the PBLT & L approach because it enables them to develop their thinking and problem-solving skills. Another study by Tom Steiner at el. (2011) found that the students were really interested in the Project-based Learning because they felt that their problem-solving skills improved upon completion of the projects. Another active T & L approach called F.U.S.E (Focus. Unpack problem. Systematically plan. Evaluation) has also been reported to improve students’  problem-solving skills (R.Paton, 2010). This method was implemented among the mechanic-students from the University of Auckland. The   research   found   that   the   students’  

skills showed some improvements after going through the F.U.S.E course. In fact, more new active T & L approaches are being developed globally.

3.Problem/Project-based Laboratory (PBLab) Course

The “Problem/Project-based  Laboratory” or better known as the PBLabis a 4th Year Laboratory course that begins with a   “problem  or  project”  as  an  approach  in  developing  students’  thinking  and  skills  in  a laboratory setting (N. A. Azli,2010). It has successfully been implemented since 2007 as part of a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) program curriculum that has resulted in active participation of the students compared to the previous conventional laboratory format. The aim of the PBLab is to induce some changes in the laboratory conduct from a teacher-centered approach to a student-centered approach by introducing real-world or close to real-world problems or projects to be solved in a group. This is in line with the emphasis in engineering education for graduates with capabilities beyond the following of procedures but instead creating them and analyzing the data in order to solve a given problem.

Students in the PBLab are given problems or projects to solve within a given period. Besides, in the PBLab, the role of the lecturers have changed to becoming facilitators whose main responsibility is to facilitate the students in moving forward towards solving the given problems or projects rather than telling students directly what to do and what they should learn. Unlike the previous conventional laboratory conducted, PBLab requires the students to develop their own experimental procedure prior to conducting it as part of the problem or project solution. This requires the ability of the students not only to relate their prior learnt knowledge to the given problem or project but also to be engaged in discovery or exploratory learning.

Based on its proposed implementation model, the PBLab has been highlighted as a laboratory course that can encourage students to be good team players and creative problem solvers in the workplace environment (N.A.Azli, 2005). This is due to its structure that exposes students to activities that involve problem solving and active learning in

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a team. The PBLab for the Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) program involves three laboratories mainly the Advanced Power, Power Electronics and High Voltage. The students are required to complete a given problem or project as offered by each of the laboratory in 4 weeks throughout the semester. Furthermore, the time allocated for the PBLab is basically 3 hours per week inside the laboratory involving the facilitators and at least 24 hours per week outside of the laboratory involving just the students in their respective groups. The students are divided into a group of 3 to 4.

The activities that are typically carried out in a PBLab from week 1 until week 4 are as given in Table 1. The problems or projects are designed by experts whom in this case are experienced lecturers. Based on the given problem or project, students are required to brainstorm for ideas, discuss, and express their opinions on the probable solutions. This is considered as a challenging learning process for the students as they have to develop deep understanding on the subject matter to establish the suitable methods that can be applied in order to solve the given problem or project. To accelerate this process, a Student Packis made available for each given problem or project (N.A.Azli, 2005). A Student Pack consists of relevant material that is beneficial for the students in solving a problem or designing a project.The students are able to download the Student Pack from the respective  laboratory’s website after they have presented the results of their preliminary discussion to the facilitator in charge.

In addition, there is also the Facilitator Pack (N.A.Azli, 2005) that is prepared for each problem or project given to the students. This is necessary because not all problem or project designers will become the facilitators. Thus the

Facilitator Pack is a tool for the facilitators to refer to that basically describes the probable solution for the given

problem or the details of the project. Table 2.8 shows that the process of solving the problems or projects ends after the findings or results are acquired.  Table  2.8  also  displays  the  facilitators’  responsibility  in  each  weekly PBLab sessions and it does indicate the importance of facilitation in ensuring smooth conduct and good progress of the PBLab.The roles of the facilitators as stated by N.A.Azli (2010) are,

1. To facilitate each group in a laboratory session in solving a problem or conducting a project. 2. To  evaluate  the  students’  laboratory  performance  based  on  the  outlined  evaluation  criteria.

3. To ensure that the evaluation process is completed according to schedule for each assigned problem or project. In order to ensure that the Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) program outcomes represented by the PBLab course outcomes are achieved, it is important for the facilitators to assess the students properly based on their achievements in the respective laboratory. For the PBLab, the decision on the assessments methods used has been made by the PBLab Task Force members (N.A.Azli, 2010). In evaluating the performance of the students on the aspect of course outcomes achievement, several assessment methods have been chosen for implementation in the PBLab. Table 2 shows a sample of the assessment methods. Since 2007, the percentage contributing to each method has been reviewed from time to time as part of the course continual quality improvement effort. Furthermore for each assessment method, the evaluation

criteria  have  also  been  changed  for  similar  reasons.  For  example  in  assessing  each  student’s  activities  in  the  PBLab,  the  

latest criteria have included a one to one interview between the student and the facilitator in charge.

Table 1. The PBLab activities from Week 1 until Week 4 (N. A. Azli, 2010)

Weeks In-Lab session (3 hours) Out-Lab session (2 hours)

WEEK 1 (Each group is assigned a problem*)

1. Understanding the problem with guide of facilitator. 2. Brainstorming, giving ideas to solve problem. 3. Identify available resources and tools.

4. Identifying what you know and what you need to know in solving the problem.

5. Facilitator marks individual in-lab activities.

1. Get more resources to help understand the problem.

2. Divide work among group member. 3. Report findings to group.

4. Agree on a solution.

WEEK 2 1. Present solution to facilitator.

2. Facilitator comments on solution, making sure the

group is on the right track.

3. Group begins to design the experiment. 4. Group confirms the experiment layout. 5. Facilitator monitor and marks individual in-lab

activities and log book.

1. Group conducts some simulation work to reconfirm design.

2. Group verifies the availability of equipment and tools to conduct experiments.

3. Group prepares schematic or connection diagrams for experiment.

WEEK 3 1. Group begins to conduct experiment.

2. Facilitator monitors and marks individual-in lab activities and group log book.

3. Group get results from experimental work.

1. Group prepares slides for presentation of completed work.

2. Group starts preparing report.

WEEK 4 1. Group presentation and demo.

2. Report writing.

1. Continuation of report writing and submission exactly one week later to the

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(Facilitator monitors and marks individual-in-lab activities and group log book. Facilitators also evaluate all group presentations).

Lab technician to be recorded and given to facilitators.

*can also be in the form of a project

Table 2: The PBLab Assessments Methods

4.Methodology

4.1.Participants

Seven final year undergraduate students from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, UTM have been selected to participate in this study. All of them are students of the Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) program which includes four males and three females. In this research, the perception and opinion on the PBLab given by each of these students will be analyzed and presented as its outcomes. Besides, it is important to highlight that the students involved in this research are those who have gone through the PBLab process.

4.2.Procedure

This study is specifically qualitative that uses semi-structured interviews as an approach to collect data among seven selected students. The semi-structured interview process involves a series of open-ended questions based on the research focus area. According to Beverly Hancock (1998), open-ended questions provide opportunities for both interviewer and participants to discuss a topic in detail and give rich data collection. Besides, by using the interview approach, the detail explanation and perception of the students towards the effect of the PBLab on them can successfully be determined.

5.Results and Discussion

To determine the students’ experiences and perception regarding the effect of the PBLab on them, semi-structured face-to-face interview sessions have been conducted. The open-ended interview sessions have allowed the students to give more in-depth response regarding the effect of the PBLab which implements problem/project-based as its T & L approach on them. The students have been asked to answer several open-ended questions, but only three questions will be discussed in this paper. The first question that has been highlighted in the interview sessions is the perception of the students regarding the differences between conventional and non-conventional (PBLab) laboratory course that they have gone through. Table 3 gives the examples of some of the responses as expressed by the respondents. Based on the responses obtained, most of the respondents do know the differences between the conventional laboratory and the PBLab. However, there is one key point that has been stressed out many times by the respondents which is

The conventional laboratory has provided them with step-by-step procedures in conducting an experiment compared to the non-conventional PBLab that allows the students to think and solve the given problem or project based on their knowledge and then proceed to designing their own experimental procedure. In addition, based on Table 3, it can be summarized that the students are more comfortable and learn more when they are being pushed to solve real-world problems or projects in the PBLab. On the other hand, Respondent E clearly pointed out that the conventional laboratory also has its advantages. Although the previous conventional laboratory did not provide the opportunity for the students to come out with their own experimental procedure or the experience to solve a given problem in a team, it is still valid in providing the students with the experience to handle electrical engineering equipment based on a given procedure. As reported by Kelly, O.C. and Finlayson, O.E. (2007), in conventional laboratories, students get direct opportunities to

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develop manipulative and technical skills. However, due to the T & L approach of the PBLab, it offers the advantage of allowing the students to express and think about their own thinking in the spirit of team working.

Table 3: Students’  perception  towards  the differences between conventional laboratory and PBLab

Respondent A:

“PBLab  is  like..we  have  to  find  the  information  by  our  self  and  we  have  to  apply  what  we  have  learned  before…compared  to  the  

previous  traditional  lab,  they  give  us  the  procedure  and  we  just  followed  it,  try  to  get  the  output  from  it  and  don’t  know what we are

doing actually. But in PBLab course, we understand better because we started from the beginning of the problem..From week 1 until week 4, we analyze the result, write  the  report  and  finally,  we  understand  what  we  are  doing.”  

Respondent C:

“Conventional  lab  are  more  on…All the procedures has been provided and we just have to follow it. But for PBLab, we have to solve

the given problem by our self from  A  until  Z.” Respondent E:

“Ermm...for   conventional   lab,   it’s   more   on   to   teach   us   how   to   use the devices. For example, in the class, we just learned the

theoretical facts about the devices but when we are in the lab, we learned and know how to use it manually and not only based on theory…But,  in  PBLab,  it’s  focusing  more  on  how  to  solve  the  problem. It teaches us how to start to solve the real-world problem and how to strategize and solve it in a time frame. Besides, in PBLab, we can understand what we are doing better.”

In order to focus more on the impact of the PBLab on the students, Table 4 shows the feedback received from the respondents regarding their own perception towards the effect of the PBLab on them after having gone through it. Referring to the table, all respondents answered that the PBLab has given them positive impact. This is mainly due to its T & L approach that gives the students the chance to use their own creativity in devising the strategies to solve a given problem or project while enhancing their problem-solving skills. The comments given have also indicated that the students like to explore and yearns to be given the space to develop and use their own thinking to solve a problem or project without directly following procedures. Besides, PBLab also has given them the experience of working with other students and learn to tolerate with each other despite having any differences in order to complete a given problem or project which would be assessed on group basis. Furthermore, according to Harlen (2006), this active learning approach also can enhance learning when students interact with each other, which recognises the impact of other

students’  ideas  in  solving  a given problem or project.

Table 4. Students’  perception  towards  the effect of PBLab on them

Respondent A:

“It gives us positive effect because what we have learned  from  first  year  until  fourth  year  class  can  be  applied  in  the  PBLab.” Respondent E:

“It’s  really  good  because  we  have  to  know  how  to  manage.  Previously,  we  are  been  given  the  procedure  and  we  just  follow  and  setup the experiments

based on the given steps. But for PBLab, we try to setup and solve the given project or problem ourselves. Besides, the problems/projects are real

ones”  

Respondent F:

“It gives effects...For example, PBLab teaches us how to work with people who have different attitudes and  way  of  thinking.”

Besides enhancing the students’  learning  and their thinking process, the PBLab has also been designed to develop other important generic skills which are equally important for graduating engineers. Table 5 describes the   students’  

feedback regarding the effect of the PBLab on them in developing their generic skills.A few respondents said that the PBLab somewhat has forced them to use the English language as the form of communication because a few of their group members are non-native Malay speakers. Besides that, other skills that have been emphasised by the respondents are report writing and presentation. Respondent C clearly stated that the PBLab has taught him to prepare the project presentation slides within a time constraint. Although there have been other courses which require the students to present their work, with the PBLab all members of a group must be aware of the process involved in solving a problem or completing a project right from the very beginning. If this awareness effort is not embraced by any of the group members, it can easily be detected during the presentation session itself since each of them has to present their part of the presentation material. In addition proper planning and coordination is required as in a very limited time, the students have to present their data in a systematic way so that the audience can clearly understand the presentation. Another skill that has been developed by the students in the PBLab is report writing based on the fact that they are required to complete three reports throughout the semester. This is verified by Respondent E and most importantly the respondent has acknowledged the importance of report writing skill for graduating engineers.

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Table 5. Students’  feedback on the effect of the PBLab in developing their generic skills

Respondent B:

“Yeah..it  forces us  to  speak  in  English  because  there  are  some  foreign  students  in  our  groups”

Respondent D:

“It has improved my  English..” Respondent C:

“Basically  we  know  how  to  prepare slides, but during PBLab, it teaches us how to prepare and manage it in a short time..Usually, we will take some

time  to  prepare  and  design  the  slides,  but  in  PBLab,  it’s  vice  versa.” Respondent E:

“Yes...There  is..in PBLab, we have to write a report. Most people said that engineers don’t need to be a good report writer, which is wrong. The truth

is in order to become a good engineer, you have to be good in writing reports too.”

6.Conclusion

This paper has highlighted the responds given by the students regarding the effect of the PBLab on them based on the three forwarded questions. The comments and responds given clearly indicate that the PBLab although rather challenging is well accepted and has brought positive  effects  not  only  on  the  students’  learning but also on developing various skills that are important for graduating engineers. There are several other factors that may contribute to the effect of the PBLab on the students particularly on their learning which include the   facilitators’   attitudes, types of assessments and types of problem or project given. Further investigation and analysis need to be done in future to identify how far these factors effects the students.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the Centre for Teaching and Learning of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia for the funding of this project through Vote Number Q.J 130000 under the Instructional Development Grant (IDG).

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