Purpose: This article presents and evaluates an educational project designed to simulate a professional workplace environment for tertiary aeronautical engineering students. Students had the options of working with engineering-related software or choosing a theoretical topic for an undergraduate English language project.
Method: This practitioner case-study research is based on a mixed-methods approach. Students were asked to complete a quantitative evaluation survey, which was complemented by an analysis of students’ project reports, presentations and the teacher’s supervision log. The final reports functioned as both an assignment for marking and an evaluation of the project results.
Results: In total, 14 out of 20 students returned an evaluation survey sheet. Based on the mean group rankings of statements on a five-point Likert scale (0 to 4 points), the results showed that students perceived several objectives as greatly achieved: expanding subject-specific vocabulary (3.35), working with scientific literature (3.21), following a given template for writing scientific texts (3.21), and practicing techniques of literature search (3.07). Furthermore, students found it very important that they could exercise autonomy during the project phase (3.78) and had been allowed free choice of the project topic (3.64). The five project groups submitted reports of generally good linguistic quality on different aeronautical subject areas.
Conclusion: As it may be concluded from the questionnaire responses, students favored language learning through collaborative constructionist project activity and learner autonomy. A didactic framework that promotes these elements seems to be well suited for similar technical learning environments, although no direct generalizations can be made from this small-scale case study.
Keywords: constructionism, learner autonomy, design project, engineering software, English language
- Constructionism and autonomy evolved as perceived facilitating factors of learning in this case-study research.
- English language and technical communication classrooms may profit from the adoption of constructionist and learner autonomy principles.
- Technical communication skills can be improved through collaborative project work.
- Collaborative project work is a flexible and versatile educational concept.
- Collaborative project work is thematically adaptable to various tertiary contexts.
- The concept of controlled choice, the selection of a concrete task option embedded in teacher-controlled instructions, was important for students.
Teaching English for specific academic purposes (ESAP) requires flexibility, creativity and variety of course design, activities, tasks and assignments on the part of language professionals. It is facilitated by a teacher’s affinity for the respective content area and further demands continual and intensive efforts to gain a certain familiarity with specialist subject matter. Such engagement is a prerequisite for the development and delivery of custom-made instruction that is likely to cater for students’ interests and needs.
The current article attempts to describe and evaluate an educational concept specifically designed to improve technical communication skills of tertiary aeronautical engineering students. Miller and Selzer (1985) have pointed to the fact that “discourse in particular communities is shaped by the generic, institutional, and disciplinary conventions of that community” (p. 338). Among such conventions of aeronautical engineering is the project- and design-driven environment of a competitive industry. It is the goal of this article to propose a way of integrating this environment’s conventions into tertiary English as a foreign language learning for undergraduate students.
The educational concept presented here rests on constructionist theory. Constructionism embraces a “view of learning as a constructive process” (Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, & Perry, 1992/2009, p. 22), in which “content cannot be prespecified” (p. 23). In other terms, constructionism relies on the creation of new content through learning, so that learning becomes an open-ended process with unpredictable outcomes. It is, therefore, a pedagogic stream that allows for the employment of knowledge generation, design tasks and authentic artefacts in the service of foreign language learning.
As Kafai and Resnick (2008) have noted, constructionism is “both a theory of learning and a strategy for education” founded on constructivism (p. 1). In the tradition of Piaget, a pioneering proponent of constructivism, Papert (1993) has advocated “the natural, spontaneous learning of people in interaction with their environment” (p. 156). In contrast to a positivistic interpretation of science, Papert (1993) has expressed an interest in “knowledge that is more qualitative, less completely specified, and seldom stated in propositional form” (p. 138). Such an approach favors the explorative nature of scientific reasoning. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the positivistic scientific method with its focus on measurement precision and mathematical evidence lays the foundations for engineering disciplines and professions, whose students constitute the target learners for the concept described in this article. In other words, constructivism and positivism should not be regarded as mutually exclusive but complementary approaches to educational, professional and scientific practice.
Another key idea of constructivism has been explained by Jonassen (1992/2009), who has noted that “learners can only interpret information in the context of their own experiences, and what they interpret will, to some extent, be individualistic,” so that they “construct their own meaning relative to their needs, backgrounds, and interests” (p. 139). This focus on learning from and through experience emphasizes the necessity of involving students in the educational process and activating their language use in a context they can identify with. An implementation of learning through experience in technical communication courses has been described by Ross and Arnett (2013), who endorse the benefits of a hands-on classroom.
Similarly, advocating a sociocognitive approach to second language learning, Atkinson (2011) has argued that cognition, “the guiding concept and preeminent location of second language learning for the first four decades of its systematic study,” should be reconsidered and understood as “a process projecting well beyond the boundary of the skull, and rather directly into the everyday worlds of social activity and practice” (p. 162). This recommendation is a further expression of the key constructionist thought of collaborative and interactive learning. In summary, the main ideas found in constructionism that have influenced the project concept in this article are learning through explorative creation, experience, collaboration and interaction as well as a careful consideration of students’ learning environment.
Engineering Workplace Characteristics
Apart from the immediate study context, students’ future professional environment plays a role for designing educational tasks and activities. There are both similarities as well as fundamental differences between the academic world of teaching and research on the one hand and engineering career fields on the other.
Engineering science and science are founded on the same natural laws; they use the same modes of dissemination, and the knowledge they generate is cumulative (Vincenti, 1990, p. 134). Thus, a strong link between academia and technical professions is formed by scientific reasoning, which, however, tends to produce different outcomes. The purpose of scientific activity is an increased understanding of nature, whereas that of engineering science is the creation of artefacts (Vincenti, 1990, p. 135). Furthermore, scientific reasoning is closely related to scientific publication, as only through publication does research become widely available and thus usable within specific communities. Applied engineering disciplines, however, differ in an important aspect from fundamental science, as Winsor (1998) has argued: “For the engineer, the equivalent of scientific publication is probably the release of the object to the marketplace” (p. 344). This thought underscores the focus of engineering disciplines on the design, construction and manufacture of concrete material products. Industrial engineers, then, as Winsor (1998) has suggested, are faced with a working environment different from that of scientific publication at universities: “The knowledge they create must be jointly held by those within their own organizations and largely withheld from those outside – a state of affairs that is obviously intertwined with the discipline’s lack of emphasis on published articles” (p. 345). Engineering, thus, epitomizes a key thought of constructionism, and that is the collaborative creation of knowledge, albeit with a clear tendency toward securing confidentiality and profitability of inventions and developments. In other words, securing intellectual property rights in engineering mainly functions by means of patent applications, non-disclosure agreements and partner contracts.
Engineering reasoning has been viewed as shaped by the demands of the workplace and “referred to as design thinking [emphasis in original]: a high level of creativity and mental discipline as the engineer tries to discover the heart of the problem and explore beyond the solutions at easy reach” (Sheppard, Macatangay, Colby, & Sullivan, 2009, p. 100). Meyer (1985) has attributed such problem-solving skills to the “cognitive structure in the engineer’s mind,” which rests on “facts and rules” (p. 25). Providing learning scenarios in which engineering students are enabled to apply creativity and collaboration has been accepted as an important factor in raising student motivation (Benjamin & Keenan, 2006, p. 7).
Another characteristic of engineering workplaces is the multimodality of their machines, hardware, software, interactions, routines, and communication media. Even though Johns and Swales (1998) have noted that “literacies of all types (visual, textual, computational) and in all locales (occupational, professional, academic) are multi-modal and multi-dimensional” (p. 25), this is particularly true of engineering disciplines, as Kleifgen (2013) has demonstrated with ethnographic fieldwork at a medium-sized high-tech firm in Silicon Valley. Also Winsor (1990) has pointed to engineers’ “observations of writing such as instrument traces, data sheets, and log books” (p. 68).
Furthermore, Winsor (1998) has addressed the importance of written documents and drawings in engineers’ work (p. 352). The production and management of these documents and drawings mainly involve computers and specialist programs, which are multimodal yet also characterized by a high proportion of graphical information. In many cases, the graphical output of data serves multiple purposes, such as analysis, evaluation, process monitoring or product adaptation, to name but a few.
The engineering workplace is further characterized by the complexity of engineering tasks. This becomes evident when one considers the magnitude of certain engineering products, such as buildings, cars, ships or aircraft. However, the Cognition and Technology Group (1992/2009) has argued that “the degree to which complexity is or is not problematic depends on the teacher’s approach, since this will impact the learner’s approach” (p. 117). In other terms, the teacher needs to cater for degrees of complexity in task design and allow room for students’ creativity and personalized learning.
Finally, work in an engineering organization is highly collaborative (Winsor, 1989, p. 271). This circumstance is indeed necessitated by the complexity of engineering tasks, which requires concentrated group efforts and whose solution lies far beyond any individual’s capabilities. Even though individual knowledge and skills are highly valued in industry, it is only possible through the collaboration of specialist experts that new products are engineered.
The Question of Authenticity in Tertiary Engineering Education
Writing is a skill integral to engineering activity, as engineering knowledge is documented and constructed through written symbol systems so that writing and technical work are interwoven and mutually dependent (Winsor, 1990, p. 59, 1994, p. 230). In the context of specialist writing programs, Paradis, Dobrin, and Miller (1985) have raised the question of how effectively universities can contribute to professional writing education, “since writing responsibilities and audiences appear to vary greatly from industry to industry and from job to job” (pp. 303–304; cf. Henschel & Meloncon, 2014, p. 21). Similarly, Couture, Rymer, Goldstein, Malone, Nelson, and Quiroz (1985) pointed to diverging perspectives of university writing teachers and industry advisory board members on the role of the classroom, with some industry professionals implying that classroom activities should not only stimulate but “replicate workplace tasks” (p. 420) so that the classroom would become “a mini-workplace” (p. 421). On the other hand, from the perspective of aircraft design education, Young (2000) has considered it “foolish to assume that universities can and should provide all the building blocks of knowledge, social and technical skills, experience and judgment – essential to the making of a professional engineer,” but they must “lay the foundation for this process and prepare the individual for life-long learning” (p. 211). The question to what extent the professional workplace should and can be replicated in the university classroom, thus, remains open to debate. Yu (2010) has addressed concerns about imitating commercial training when aligning university education with industry norms (p. 43), and Quick (2012) has suggested that capitalizing on adult students’ workplace experience in the classroom may require direct and explicit guidance from teachers (p. 248). The workplace and the university are two very distinct environments with rather diverging goals. While the university attempts to educate new generations of scientists and professionals according to disciplinary conventions and standards, industry recruits graduates and professionals ultimately for competing in business and on the global market to increase its profits.
Lave and Wenger’s (1991) concept of situated learning very much depends on the integration of aspirants into target cultures: “To become a full member of a community of practice requires access to a wide range of ongoing activity, old-timers, and other members of the community; and to information, resources, and opportunities for participation” (pp. 100–101). Needless to say, such access to workplace communities remains difficult to achieve for students and instructors involved in tertiary education. Indeed, the tertiary learning environment forms a distinct community of practice in its own right. It follows that English language teaching in higher education, as any teaching in university and college contexts, is bound to reach limited degrees of professional authenticity only, yet this circumstance does neither diminish the quality of tertiary learning, nor does it devalue it. Quite on the contrary, communities of tertiary ESP and EAP practice constitute essential components of students’ learning experience and education for industries and professions. At this point, it is helpful to remember Widdowson’s (1983) distinction of authenticity referring to text, purpose and task. In other words, full authenticity seems to be achievable only in the workplace, but authenticity of text, purpose and task is possible to various degrees and relative weightings also in educational settings.
Ways of Simulating Engineering Workplace Reality in Classroom Teaching
In the context of engineering education, Sheppard, Macatangay, Colby, and Sullivan (2009) have suggested case-based instruction as an alternative way of teaching design, “using design cases in which particular aspects of the design process are highlighted” (p. 127). Case-based instruction has also been employed for the integration of engineering practice into foreign language classrooms (Tatzl, 2014). Career-field cases from students’ areas of interest promise to raise motivation and engagement for foreign language learning.
There are further ways of furnishing the university classroom with workplace-related tasks and resources. Perkins (1992/2009), for instance, lists five facets of a learning environment such as a classroom: information banks, symbol pads, construction kits, phenomenaria and task managers (pp. 46–48). These classroom components can be rather easily designed in ways to bring the classroom closer to the workplace, for instance by providing authentic source materials.
Another favorable option is project-based learning (PjBL), which has proven to be an effective approach to the integration of language and content learning in engineering disciplines (Casey, 2012; Chalifoux & Vinet, 1988; Tatzl, Hassler, Messnarz, & Flühr, 2012). From a content perspective, “[d]esign projects offer opportunities to approximate professional practice, with its concerns for social implications; integrate and synthesize knowledge; and develop skills of persistence, creativity, and teamwork” (Sheppard, Macatangay, Colby, & Sullivan, 2009, p. xxii; see also Fielding & Jones, 2000). Design projects, thus, cover training in the skills areas that engineers need to possess according to Phil Condit, former chief executive officer of Boeing: collaboration, communication, cost awareness and continuous learning (Gorman et al., 2001, p. 144; see also Meyer, 1985, p. 25). In the 21st century, international project work has been facilitated by the use of online collaborative writing tools (OCWTs), as Behles (2013) has suggested in a study of technical communication practitioners and students. From a linguistic perspective, projects represent an authentic scenario where students need to communicate on planning, organization, methods, problem solving, and content, progress monitoring and reporting. These and many other communicative events and situations offer learners a field for experimentation with different language forms and functions so that language becomes an integrated and essential factor for completing a concrete task. Furthermore, Wong and Nunan (2011) have noted that effective learners endorse an instrumental view of “language as a tool for communicating” (p. 155), which they find epitomized in project-based learning. Besides communication skills, Musa, Mufti, Latiff, and Amin (2011) have mentioned students’ exposure to team work, conflict management and decision making in PjBL (p. 194).
There are also drawbacks of educational projects, though. Larson, Birge, Huang, Sattler, Turns, and Yellin (2009), for instance, observed tensions for educators, who had meant to ensure the exploration of certain topics and underlying concepts but encountered the frictions of learning versus producing in a non-traditional pedagogic setting (p. 174). Another limitation of educational projects is that they remain educational and merely simulate the solution of an engineering task, yet this limitation should not be overestimated, as Sheppard, Macatangay, Colby, and Sullivan (2009) have argued: “In experiencing a simplified approximation to engineering practice, the novice nonetheless gets a sense of the breadth of engineering’s dimensions” (p. 17). In linguistic terms, this limitation is almost negligible because the language needed for talking about and describing the project will be very close to expressions and terminology found in the actual content area. The longer the project lasts, the greater the authenticity of the language used will become, as students dig deeper into the subject matter.
A Technical Communication Course for Aeronautical Engineering Students
Technical communication education is characterized by a great variety of programs, concentrations, tracks, specializations and courses, as Meloncon and Henschel (2013) have demonstrated for United States undergraduate degree programs. This variety increases when international programs are taken into consideration. Technical communication courses in English-speaking countries tend to be designed for native speakers of English, yet in other regions of the world, technical communication components are more likely to be integrated into tertiary English as a foreign language streams and courses. In such contexts, technical communication means using a foreign language for oral and written communication in the workplace, for a wide range of purposes, genres and situations.
The current course is embedded in an Austrian undergraduate aeronautical engineering curriculum and located in the second year (fourth semester). It is a technical communication course aimed at enhancing students’ English as a foreign language skills and specialist vocabulary knowledge in aeronautical technology. It runs over a full semester with two contact teaching hours per week, amounting to a total of 30 hours teaching time. Its main components are writing a technical report, abstract writing, presenting results, process descriptions, and a range of specialist topics for communication practice. Course assessment is composed of a final examination (40%), a technical project report (40%), a group presentation (10%), and participation (10%). The presentation is thematically linked with the final project report so that these two elements comprise 50% of the total course grade.
A teaching problem encountered by the course instructor was the right task selection for an adequate preparation of students for employability in engineering workplaces. In the technical communication literature, practitioner-student interaction has been proposed as a means of bridging the gap between academia and the world of work (Jennings, 2012). Such a constellation, however, is only feasible in settings where the practitioner in the workplace is an educated technical communicator and the student is committed to seek employment as a technical communicator after graduation. In addition, mentoring relationships in technical communication are difficult to establish owing to the lack of a mentoring culture and models, which are more firmly anchored in disciplines such as science, engineering, and business (Zimmerman & Paul, 2007, p. 198). In the course environment under consideration, practitioner-student interaction is not viable, as practicing engineers are subject-matter experts in aeronautics occupied with core engineering performance and not technical communication professionals trained to promote students’ English language skills. This is not to say that engineers do not need to communicate technical contents on a regular basis, quite on the contrary, but they are no linguists or writing instructors.
In view of international employability, the main goal of this course is equipping learners with improved foreign language skills that allow them to function as professionals in a global industry where English serves as the common communication link among different cultures, companies and countries. The instructor, therefore, needed to find a way to create a learning environment that catered for both students’ and workplace needs, fitted into the curricular framework of the degree program, and satisfied the dual goal of content and language learning.
Inspired by salient characteristics of the engineering workplace, thus, the course instructor aimed at a capitalization on multimodality, computer-aided drawings, task complexity, collaboration, and the career field’s problem-solving disposition in designing an educational scenario for undergraduate students. He found that these requirements for replicating authentic engineering activity in the technical communication classroom were well met by constructionist project-based learning.
Rationale Behind the Constructionist English Language Teaching Project
The English language teaching project described in this article was founded on constructionist theory and learner autonomy (Holec, 1981, p. 3; Little, 1991, p. 4). For this reason, the task aimed at providing students with the opportunity to work with engineering-related drawing software but also to choose the project topic freely. Software has been used successfully in technical communication courses in the past (Brumberger, Lauer, & Northcut, 2013, p. 189). In the current project framework, groups of four students could select a topic they were most interested in and felt comfortable with. Bloor and St John (1988) have held group projects “only suitable for homogeneous groups where all students are working in similar fields” (p. 86), which applies to the case described here.
The first option required students to design the concept for a silent aircraft with the software package Rhinoceros® (2011), which learners had already used in a content course. As professional engineers are occupied with “the design, analysis and improvement of complex systems” (Denton, 1998, p. 19), this requirement has formed an attempt at simulating workplace reality in the language classroom. Learning by designing (Enkenberg, 2001, p. 500) or learning through design (Kafai & Resnick, 2008, p. 4) also constitutes a fundamental teaching model in engineering education. The student designs were supposed to form the basis for their final project reports and had to be supported by professionally published literature.
Alternatively, students could select a research problem or topic from one of their current subject-specific courses. They were thus free to choose a project assignment in one of their aeronautical, engineering, science or business lectures, or they could improve and extend their knowledge about a certain subject treated in one of the courses on the curriculum. In both cases, they were required to incorporate academic research into their own writing.
This element of choice represents a feature of learner autonomy, which aims at educating independent learners responsible for their own learning strategies, means and outcomes (cf. Enkenberg, 2001, p. 500; Esch, 1996, pp. 39–40; Legenhausen, 1999, p. 67). In Little’s (1995) words, an important aspect of learner autonomy is “the development of a capacity to reflect on the content and process of learning with a view to bringing them as far as possible under conscious control” (p. 175). In the current case, students were granted considerable control over the content and learning process concerning the completion of the project assignment.
The project’s global goals for language learning were the improvement of technical communication skills, writing skills and research strategies. Its language learning objectives were searching for and working with literature on a scientific topic; recognizing and implementing features and conventions of technical-scientific writing; adopting appropriate language, register, and style for technical-scientific writing; expanding subject-specific vocabulary in context; following a given template for writing technical-scientific texts; reporting results according to a given structure; and peer-reviewing and editing technical texts.
Content goals and objectives had not been stated explicitly but were assumed to be understood by students as a result of the project task. The implicit content goal was an expansion of aeronautical knowledge, and implicit objectives were gaining a better understanding of self-selected academic areas, practicing the use of engineering software, and treating aviation-related subject matter in a project.
Description of the Constructionist English Language Teaching Project
The technical communication in English project resulting from the constructionist and learner autonomy rationale described above lasted for three months and ended with the submission of the final reports and the oral presentations of each group. The course instructor introduced the assignment in class and, together with the whole year group, defined basic specifications and evaluation criteria for a conceptual design challenge aircraft. Some design specifications for this silent commercial airliner were a capacity of 200 to 300 passengers, two engines, medium range and noise levels below those of current aircraft of comparable size. Over the full project duration, the course instructor conducted writing support activities in class to accompany the project with linguistic input at regular intervals. These support activities encompassed syntax checks of technical texts, the production of syntheses of academic sources, quotation and referencing, abstract writing, and the usage of scientific research journals.
Students were encouraged to work on their project topics continuously and to transfer the knowledge about technical-scientific writing gained in class to the independent production of their final reports. The resources for completing their projects were available from the university library, the institute’s electronic data processing infrastructure, and online information databases. Thus, students operated in a technology-assisted learning environment with computer labs, software packages and wireless Internet access. In other words, the project employed hardware and software components that facilitated the implementation of the constructionist rationale for producing a conceptual aircraft design.
At the end of this three-month project, students handed in a final report to document the results of their research activities. For preparing their written group reports, learners had been instructed to present concrete outcomes in the form of verbal descriptions, tables, and charts. Students had been further advised to consult the institute’s template for scientific writing. This assignment may be classified as a product approach to writing, which corresponds to scenarios encountered in aeronautical disciplines and career fields when professionals report the results of their technical, scientific or economic project activities.
The project finished with the oral group presentations of the final reports in class. Students were asked to use Microsoft® PowerPoint® slides and were assigned a time limit of 15 minutes. Every project member had to participate in the preparation and delivery of the talks. The pedagogic objectives of these presentations were to train students in subject-specific speaking, listening, and interaction skills as well as to create a forum for sharing their achievements with others. Furthermore, the presentations necessitated learners processing in an oral mode the written reports they had completed, which was supposed to extend and reinforce learning gains. In this way, students were encouraged to translate content they had treated over an extended period and documented in a report into a presentation format. This entailed the cognitive processes of evaluating, selecting, and condensing information to clearly communicate their project outcomes.
The methods adopted to evaluate this constructionist English language teaching project were both quantitative and qualitative in nature. The quantitative part consisted of a project task evaluation survey that students completed after the final class. The qualitative part included an analysis of students’ final project reports, students’ final project presentations, and the teacher’s project supervision log. The final reports served as an assignment for marking on the one hand and as an evaluation of the project results on the other. This written student-produced documentation was complemented by oral presentations of each project to gain insights into further aspects that might have been missed when considering the written mode only. Finally, these student-produced data were balanced by the teacher’s observations noted down in the project supervision log.
Project Task Evaluation Survey
The project task evaluation survey was designed in paper form and distributed to students by email. Students were invited to complete the survey and drop it into the teacher’s in-tray in the institute’s office. The sheet consisted of a total of 16 statements in two categories and a free verbal feedback section. The two categories were Project objectives and Project components, and each of these two categories required students to rate eight related statements on a 5-point Likert scale respectively (from 0 or Not at all to 4 or Fully). These categories were introduced with the instruction to indicate the extent to which students thought they had reached the project objectives set and to answer the question how important the project components listed were for them. In this way, it was deemed possible to receive readily comparable statements that could be ranked after an analysis of students’ responses.
Students’ Final Project Reports
Students’ final reports assumed the function of qualitative data sources for evaluating this educational project. All reports were corrected, marked, and classified according to the two assignment options, design project or literature review. In addition, verbal evaluation summaries were produced for each group report.
Students’ Final Project Presentations
For the purpose of this classroom research, the oral group talks and presentation slides were analyzed concerning the criteria of content, organization, and language. These areas were chosen because they represent key skills important in higher education and professional lives. The content criterion was supposed to illustrate learners’ ability to select the appropriate amount and type of information from their projects, and the organization criterion should reveal whether students were able to structure their slides in a clear and meaningful manner. The language criterion included the oral delivery component and the written slides component. Both fluent delivery and accurate slides form the basis of advanced presentation skills, which, in turn, allow the teacher to draw inferences about students’ task fulfilment and engagement with the project.
Teacher’s Project Supervision Log
Students were offered support during the semester through in-class project-related instruction and the discussion of questions. In addition, the teacher was available to students for resolving issues or clarifying aspects of the assignment throughout the project duration. A retrospective supervision log served as the final research method to complement student-produced data with teacher-produced reflections. The log was kept in note form with special situations and observations in mind.
In total, 20 engineering students of aeronautics participated in the projects, and 14 students returned an evaluation form, which corresponds to a return rate of 70%. Students wrote five reports in groups of four and also presented their results in front of the class. Finally, 12 students evaluated the concept aircraft design of the group that had chosen this option.
Project Task Evaluation Survey
The project task evaluation survey yielded three different categories of results: first, a ranking of students’ perceived fulfillment of the project’s objectives; second, a ranking of the project components’ importance for students; and third, students’ free verbal clustered feedback on the project. As Table 1 shows, students perceived half of the project’s objectives fulfilled with a rating above 3 on a 5-point Likert scale, 3 being the second-best rating option. They thus considered expanding subject-specific vocabulary (3.35), working with scientific literature (3.21), following a given template for writing scientific texts (3.21), and practicing techniques of literature search (3.07) as greatly fulfilled by the project.
Table 2 demonstrates that students attached paramount importance to the components autonomy during the project phase (3.78) and allowing free choice of the project topic (3.64). These were followed by working in groups (3.42), linking the project with a concrete design task (2.71), and access to a sample report from a previous year group (2.71), which all equal a description of very important. The group investigated thus showed a slight preference for autonomy rather than the core constructionist element in the design task.
Table 3 shows the collected and clustered free verbal feedback from the survey. Students chiefly commented on the aspects of scientific writing, content knowledge, group work, and autonomy. In general, students’ statements were in favor of the way in which the project was conducted and the learning opportunities it offered.
Students’ Final Project Reports
At the beginning of the project, the teacher and the students negotiated design specifications and mission requirements for the conceptual aircraft design challenge so that there would be equal conditions for all groups. Table 4 shows the outcome of these negotiations. It needs to be mentioned that in the framework of this educational assignment, it was impossible to include any feasibility assessment of the concept aircraft except for students’ peer feedback. The design specifications and mission requirements in the table, therefore, contained very general data and some broadly defined criteria, such as economic feasibility or noise levels reduced by 20% compared to similar modern reference aircraft, which could not and were not meant to be verified in this context.
Table 5 provides an overview of the final project reports written by students. The five project groups produced reports on very different subject matter, and only one group had chosen the conceptual design challenge option (“Conceptual design of a silent passenger aircraft”). Another group had described the “Development and manufacturing process of the JXP-VM,” the scaled miniature model of an unmanned aerial vehicle designed by researchers and students of the author’s university. A third group combined the two assignment options of using engineering software for the project and conducting a literature review on a topic of interest (“Parachute systems”). This group conducted a flow simulation of a parachute canopy profile with the computational fluid dynamics software ANSYS® CFX (2012) and ANSYS® ICEM CFD (2012). The remaining group reports (“High lift aerodynamics” and “Jet engine classification”) constituted pure literature reviews according to the second assignment option.
The marks on the reports were generally good, with the exception of one satisfactory grade (see Table 5). These marks correspond to the Austrian 5-tier grading scheme of excellent, good, satisfactory, pass, and fail.
The report “Conceptual design of a silent passenger aircraft” resulted in the full depiction of an innovative commercial airliner proposal by means of the software Rhinoceros® (2011), which can be seen in Figures 1 and 2. The group based its design on a good selection of relevant literature, yet the design itself could have been foregrounded and better linked with the source materials treated. In any case, the report provided a rather clear description of the design method, the use of the software, and the conceptual aircraft. The group also illustrated its report with 29 figures for further documenting its project activity.
The report on “Parachute systems” was well organized and contained professional figures. The aerodynamic flow simulation with ANSYS® CFX (2012) and ANSYS® ICEM CFD (2012), however, could have been foregrounded and explained in more detail. The report on the “Development and manufacturing process of the JXP-VM” constituted a useful process description for building a model airplane. It would have gained even more substance, though, by consulting further specialist literature. The literature review on “Jet engine classification” was characterized by a confident treatment of source materials and references as well as figures and text organization. The group further managed to reduce a complex topic to its essentials and still describe it in a precise way. The final report on “High lift aerodynamics” also showed a rather good command of source materials and references and described leading- and trailing-edge devices for efficient flow control on airfoils.
Students’ Final Project Presentations
The students’ final project presentations took place on 29 May 2012. All five groups presented their projects to the teacher and their peers, and the class evaluated the conceptual design group’s drawing of a concept aircraft according to negotiated criteria (Table 6). Harris and Bell (1994) have pointed to the advantages of a public display of task results: “Not only is the judgment of products a normal activity within our society, in the context of education it also allows teachers to check and compare their results, an argument being that subjectivity is decreased” (p. 100). The group presentations lasted for 15 minutes each, with additional time for questions from the audience. This public display of project outcomes enabled the groups to share their work with others and thus enhance its value, as colleagues could also gain new insights and participate in the question-and-answer sessions.
The conceptual design group’s project received mixed and critical ratings from the other students. Out of a total of 20 possible points, the number of points awarded to the project ranged from 12 to 19. Four students had not evaluated the design concept.
The group presentations were well delivered and focused. In principle, most students presented fluently and freely without the help of moderation cards or notes except the slides visible on the computer screen next to them. The content of the presentations was closely aligned with the projects and tailored to the audience. Furthermore, the organization of the slides met professional standards and reflected a logical structure that facilitated information intake. The language used was appropriate for the aerospace industry and the context of in-class presentations. Several slides, however, contained spelling and punctuation mistakes.
Teacher’s Project Supervision Log
The teacher’s project supervision log contained entries on the introduction of the assignment; the joint definition of basic specifications for the aircraft and evaluation criteria for the design; a writing session; and student questions. The introduction of the assignment triggered positive but also skeptical reactions among students. The author explicitly asked learners what they thought about this project assignment, and they seemed to generally like the idea but raised concerns about workload. The joint definition of basic specifications for the aircraft to be designed and the related evaluation criteria resulted in eager student participation. Similarly, the in-class writing session managed to involve learners in the improvement of sample sentences, but learners had occasional difficulties with the formulation of accurate alternatives. Another observation from the project supervision log is that student questions revolved around submission criteria and organizational aspects rather than content and language.
The methods applied suited the practitioner research setting with a small group of learners. The different tools employed yielded complementary and reciprocally supportive results, which mainly expressed students’ approval of the constructionist design task and project framework. This group of learners, thus, found didactic, organizational, and motivational merits in the current educational project design.
Discussion of Methods
The software package Rhinoceros® (2011) was a convenient choice for this assignment, as students had worked with this tool in a content course before and knew about its functionality. However, Rhinoceros® (2011) is rather a three-dimensional drawing program than professional engineering software for aircraft design. Originally, it had been the aim of this assignment to integrate design software used in the aerospace industry, yet students in this degree program do not encounter such software before their final year of studies. The constructionist project under discussion, however, formed part of a second-year (fourth-semester) English language course so that the adoption of authentic computer-assisted tools for aircraft design remained unfeasible at this pedagogic stage. Nevertheless, Rhinoceros® (2011) enabled the generation of three-dimensional shapes that could be combined to arrive at a technical drawing of an aircraft concept. This level of functionality proved sufficient for the current assignment.
The mixed-methods approach to the evaluation of the constructionist design project under investigation supported the adoption of quantitative and qualitative research perspectives. Even though the sample size was small and limited by the student year group size, the project task evaluation survey allowed a ranking of group answers to identify the statements most favored by students. The combination of the survey with the qualitative evaluation of students’ final project reports and presentations enabled a balanced viewpoint at this educational concept. A further qualitative perspective was delivered by the teacher’s project supervision log, adding the teacher’s notes, observations, and reflections to the otherwise student-produced data.
Discussion of Results
The results from the project task evaluation survey, the students’ final project reports and presentations, and the teacher’s project supervision log allowed an evaluation of this constructionist design project from multiple perspectives. In principle, all of these research tools revealed encouraging results concerning student approval, report quality, and motivation.
Project Task Evaluation Survey. The survey results related to the project’s objectives as depicted in Table 1 suggest that students assigned very high degrees of fulfillment to lexical improvement and areas associated with scientific writing. Students thus acknowledged the constructionist project’s suitability for expanding their technical terminology (rating of 3.35), working with scientific literature (3.21), following a given template for writing scientific texts (3.21), and practicing techniques of literature search (3.07). It should be mentioned that the remaining objectives, however, only received marginally lower ratings than those just discussed. This fact points to students’ general perception of the project’s effectiveness for English language learning. The questionnaire specifically asked for learners’ ratings concerning the extent to which they had personally reached the objectives set so that these results emphasize considerable learning gains as detected by students.
The main reason for these high ratings may be grounded in the constructionist design task’s alignment with this student group’s learning style preferences. Such reasoning is supported by the results shown in Table 2, which focused on students’ perceived importance of the project components listed. The fact that learners underlined the overriding importance of autonomy-related components such as autonomy during the project phase (3.78) and allowing free choice of the project topic (3.64) reinforces the pursuit of independent-learning principles in higher education settings. It further implies that these students appreciated the freedom to determine the exact content of their learning, organize the main project activities, and control the pace of their progress. It seems that these students profited greatly from the learner-centered approach adopted for the whole project assignment.
Furthermore, students clearly identified the collaborative aspect as crucially important, with a very high rating for working in groups (3.42). This result allows the assumption that learners favored collaboration with peers on a subject-specific project task. One of the reasons for this preference may stem from the university’s learning environment, which generally promotes team building and group tasks among students so that learners are accustomed to collaboration in certain variations. Another reason may be that learners are aware of the advantages of group work for capitalizing on the members’ bundled knowledge, skills, and strategies for completing a project assignment. It is also possible that students appreciated the benefits of dividing the task into subtasks and sharing the responsibility for the final outcome.
Other components that learners considered to be very important were linking the project with a concrete design task (2.71) and access to a sample report from a previous year group (2.71). This suggests that engineering students appreciate language-learning scenarios that are integrated into engineering tasks. Founding language-learning objectives on content-learning components activates students’ engineering knowledge and skills set, which equips them with confidence and familiarity stemming from their academic and professional comfort zones. This, in turn, increases task relevance and facilitates language learning because it is not detached from students’ main area of interest but closely aligned with it. Such alignment, therefore, may reduce the risk of language-learning anxiety, foster learners’ identification with the task, and thus increase the chances of successful language learning. Tertiary engineering students tend to enjoy technical tasks and content, which also bears great potential for language learning applications.
The remaining components on the survey received lower ratings, and it is startling that the joint establishment of design specifications with course instructor (2.42) and joint establishment of evaluation criteria for design task with course instructor (2.38) received the lowest ranking as the least important project elements. This is particularly astonishing as the negotiation of task components forms part of autonomy-oriented practice, a practice that was appreciated by students as mentioned before. This discrepancy may originate from students’ preference for teacher control over certain framework conditions. On the other hand, students had expressed a strong desire for choice and participation in the topic selection of the project. This situation may be interpreted as an indication of the multi-faceted concept of autonomy, which is no monolithic block of uniform characteristics but an umbrella term with diverse constituents. As a consequence, it is perfectly possible and even probable that individual students identify with and endorse one element, while they reject or ignore others as not important, useful or engaging. Concerning the questions of choice and autonomy, thus, students seemed to favor the concept of controlled choice, a continuum from teacher-controlled cornerstones to learner-controlled building blocks.
Students’ free verbal feedback gathered in the last part of the survey represents open responses to this constructionist project concept (Table 3). These comments support the premise that scientific writing is improved through collaborative constructionist project activity, as three students specifically and independently of each other stated. Furthermore, students confirmed the project’s merit for expanding content knowledge in areas that had been previously neglected in content courses. In this way, the project offered students the opportunity to complement their curriculum-based aeronautical knowledge with explorative subject-matter learning derived from more intrinsic interests. As one student phrased it, the project allowed him or her to develop specialist as well as more holistic insights, to “expand [his or her] knowledge on a special task, but also in the context of the whole topic.” The fact that students could work in groups was also mentioned as a rewarding experience. Most comments, however, referred to the aspect of autonomy during the project phase and the free choice of topic. Students very much appreciated the possibility of selecting the concrete content they were going to focus on. For one learner, “it was great that the students could choose their own topic and be relatively free in the choice of methods.” Another learner added that this option of choice led to a concentration on areas “which weren’t covered in lectures, so far.” The free verbal feedback given by students, therefore, closely seconds the quantitative survey results.
Students’ Final Project Reports. The quality of the student group reports was generally good but showed room for improvement in certain parts, such as organization, sentence construction, connectors, tenses, prepositions, register, and referencing. Nevertheless, the reports treated aeronautical subject matter in a lexically profound way with a rather precise choice of technical terminology. Furthermore, students selected or produced appropriate figures and tables to convey numerical or graphical information on the content of their reports. Despite interruptions of cohesion, the group reports presented aeronautical content grounded in specialist literature at substantial lengths.
The analysis of these reports agrees with research on collaborative writing that emphasizes group writing advantages (see Fernández Dobao, 2012, p. 55). Storch (2013), for instance, points to “some evidence that L2 learners composing collaboratively tend to produce texts that are more accurate and of better quality than texts produced by learners writing individually” (p. 157). Even though there is no possibility of comparing the group results from the project reports with each member’s hypothetical individual performance on the same task, most group reports are characterized by good quality student writing.
Another outcome of this project assignment is the subject-specific and linguistic construction of knowledge in the form of the written final group reports. The process leading to these reports was based on collaborative writing principles that, according to Storch (2013), “provide opportunities for authentic communication among learners, encouraging learners to deliberate about language while engaged in meaningful text production” (p. 171). Furthermore, particularly the group who had chosen the design option also trained and demonstrated their imaginativeness and creativity, two skills engineers should possess according to Meyer (1985, p. 25). Constructionism, thus, was present at several levels in the project: through students’ research on aeronautical subject matter, the collaboration in groups, and the production of final reports.
Students’ Final Project Presentations. The fact that students’ final project presentations were in general well delivered and organized may be attributable to learners’ previous experience with public speaking. All learners had given three presentations in English in the preceding three semesters before the current round of final presentations. However, the occurrence of several spelling and punctuation mistakes on slides implies that these aspects are either difficult to detect by students or simply a result of hasty preparation. Although the spell-checking function of presentation software would lead one to suspect that such mistakes are due to hasty preparation, this may not be the case, as students may not use the spell-checking function or ignore its suggestions. Furthermore, students may simply overlook misspelt words that have similar spelling in German, such as process and Prozess, or that are near-homophones in English, such as insured and injured.
The mixed ratings of the conceptual design group’s project by other students suggest that peers were critical judges of aeronautical content. The whole class was fully aware of the drawing software’s limitations for aeronautical design applications, yet they also posed questions about design inaccuracies during the question-and-answer session following the group presentation. Furthermore, they critically reflected on the feasibility and conceptual implementation of noise-abating design features. All in all, thus, the integration of peer rating in this form afforded students, both the design group and the rating group, the opportunity of critical subject-specific interaction and negotiation. In other words, this competitive aspect increased students’ awareness of aeronautical design issues.
Teacher’s Project Supervision Log. The results from the supervision log revealed some noteworthy observations. The introduction of the constructionist design assignment met with certain skepticism from the group, as it involved the application of software tools and thus additional workload for learners. The teacher attempted to convince learners that writing about a conceptual design task was well suited for engineering students and could thus be a motivating project. Nevertheless, only one group chose the original design task, and another one worked with software on a different subject. If all students had participated in the design option, this would have facilitated the comparability of project outcomes, yet learners rejected this suggestion and favored a free choice of options. The joint definition of basic specifications for the aircraft and evaluation criteria for the design was also characterized by high student participation and negotiation. Students agreed on a set of criteria that enabled the group who had chosen the conceptual design task to perform its work with concrete peer-defined aims.
Even though students had some difficulties with rephrasing sample sentences during the writing session, this unit seemed to demonstrate to learners that writing requires an intensive occupation with formulations, appropriate sentences, revising, restructuring, and editing before a paragraph becomes an acceptable unit. Students’ questions during the project supervision, however, mainly focused on the organization of the report, referencing issues, and submission formalities. Linguistic questions were rare but sometimes posed in class or through email. Students may have felt confident with content and language or relied on peer reviewing, which constituted a requirement in the project, for improving their texts. Furthermore, formalities were important for students for organizing their project activities according to schedule.
The main limitations of this study are its small scale and lack of generalizability. The sample size of 14 respondents to the questionnaire is too low to make inferences from the data to hold true for the population of aeronautical engineering students. However, this was not the intention of this practitioner research in the first place. Instead, it was attempted to describe a successful technical communication project and have its components evaluated by students who had experienced it as part of their tertiary aeronautical studies. Even though learning is a complex process influenced by many factors that are difficult to measure in quantitative approaches alone, mixed-methods data offer a more balanced view at educational aspects. The research presented here, thus, should rather serve as a case study with aeronautical students, and it is hoped that practitioners and professionals in similar contexts and cultural situations find confirmation, orientation or inspiration by this project design or some of its elements.
In conclusion, students’ responses on the questionnaire revealed a tendency toward the conviction that language learning in general and scientific writing in particular are fostered through collaborative constructionist project activity. This student perspective is supported by the evaluation of students’ final project reports, which showed good to satisfactory thematic, linguistic, and organizational quality. Furthermore, a didactic framework that promotes learner autonomy evolved as a central outcome of this practitioner research. Students seemed to enjoy the concept of controlled choice, a concrete task embedded in teacher-controlled instructions combined with students’ choice of certain project elements, such as one of two project options, the organization of work, the subject matter, the detailed content, and the literature selected.
As the evaluation of this project suggests, constructionism seems to provide a favorable learning environment for engineering students. Engineering disciplines are professionally concerned with the production of results, goods, and services so that the integration of these aspects into tertiary language classrooms may be conducive to engineering students’ motivation, engagement, and, in the end, learning success. As Winsor (1998) has argued, “[e]ngineers have a disciplinary commitment to achieving certain knowledge, even though their daily work teaches them that such certainty is always elusive and temporary. The object can always malfunction; it can always be improved” (p. 367). This commitment to and desire for the continuous improvement of products was clearly visible during the final project presentations, when students rated and commented on their peers’ conceptual design of a commercial airliner with a rather critical stance. Students further seemed to enjoy the competitive aspect of rating and having rated the design project outcome by peers. This observation may be explained by a desire for measuring design success or product performance that many engineering students share (cf. Winsor, 1990, p. 60) and that competitions, games, and tournaments can satisfy.
However, there is also student criticism of project-based learning in the literature, mentioning increased workload and an inappropriate reversal of teacher-student roles, among other aspects (Beckett, 2002, pp. 60–61; Beckett, 2005, pp. 200–201; Tatzl, 2014, p. 15). Nevertheless, it seems that “ESP students learn English and content knowledge via the process of problem-solving, and this is consolidated by team-working and independent self-directed learning” (Anthony, 2011, p. 20). During the introductory session, students in this project also expressed some reservations about the constructionist design assignment, as the application of software tools was feared to cause additional workload for learners. In the end, though, learners realized that they had the choice between the design option and the literature review option, which turned workload resulting from the use of software into a voluntary and hence non-problematic matter.
Constructionism and autonomy evolved as facilitating factors of learning in this practitioner research. As a consequence, similar pedagogic settings may profit from the adoption of constructionist and learner autonomy principles in language classrooms. The collaborative production of knowledge through project work under conditions of controlled choice is thematically adaptable to any tertiary study context, which turns it into a flexible and versatile educational concept. This is particularly important for teaching because learners, groups, and institutions require individual and tailored approaches to best cater for their educational needs.
I would like to thank the students who participated in this project for their dedication and openness. In particular, I am indebted to the student group that granted permission to include their drawings of the concept aircraft in this article. I would like to extend my thanks to the anonymous reviewers of an earlier draft of my article for their valuable comments.
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About the Author
Dietmar Tatzl is a faculty member of the Institute of Aviation, where he has taught English language courses to aeronautical engineering students for 13 years. He received his doctorate in English Studies from the University of Graz, Austria. His research interests include English for specific purposes, English for science and technology, engineering education and technical communication. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 26 September 2014; revised 18 February 2015; accepted 19 February 2015.