students working in the just timber office
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Five

Authentic Learning

So, this week I want to talk about Authentic Learning. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the paper I mentioned by Marilyn M. Lombardi on ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ (Educase 2007) which provides a really nice, simple and clear framework for what authentic learning is. It breaks it down into ten key components:

1. Real-world relevance
2. Ill-defined problem
3. Sustained investigation
4. Multiple sources and perspectives
5. Collaboration
6. Reflection
7. Interdisciplinary perspective
8. Integrated assessment
9. Polished product
10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

For ‘Timber Engineering 4’- as I have noted previously- (see Episode 3) we used flipped teaching and a series of real-world projects to enable the students to learn. I also noted (in Episode 2) that we have provided a library of information which provides different information (sometimes conflicting) that students need to make sense of. In this episode I want to quickly and simply break down how I have attempted to provide all ten of these principles across the unit and specifically the four projects that the students are working on. I don’t intend to spend too long on each one – but instead provide a few practical examples that people might be able to replicate.

1. Real World Relevance

In one sense, all engineering should have real world relevance. But on this unit, I have tried to make this explicit. There are four projects and all four projects are designing buildings. One is a real building that was built, one is a real building that requires repair and two are made up, but could be real. To enhance this sense of real buildings every project includes a project information sheet and a job number. This is a simple summary of all the information provided and all the information required. This is supported with drawings, photos and further information.

2. Ill-defined problem/ 3. Sustained investigation/10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

There are four projects that the students are working on. Two are what we call detailed design. The building size, shape and structure is already known – but the final sizes of elements needs to be confirmed. These two projects are designed to teach students the basic principles of timber design. The other two projects are less well defined. One is an existing building that needs strengthening. There are many options for strengthening a floor and students need to develop some different strategies and confirm which one the client should proceed with. The other is a portable theatre. This project is the one that students will be assessed on. It has a real client (Dave from the Old Vic presented to the students on Thursday and we are off to look round their building this Thursday) who has provided an open-ended brief for the students to propose their own solution to.

All four projects are non-trivial and require students to work on them for a number of days and weeks. The final assessed project (the portable theatre) was launched back in week 2 and students have until week 10 to provide a solution.

Finally I am looking forward to seeing the output of the final project and expect a diverse selection of solutions. Of course, I won’t know if I have been successful until I receive the students final reports.

4. Multiple sources and perspectives

As noted earlier students are provided with a library of information – not one definitive set of notes, however this is not enough to really achieve this aspect of authentic learning, as students should find the information themselves! Whilst they are presented with a large library of information they are not provided with everything. When designing a building there are a large swathe of codes and standards they should be looking at. There is also an even larger body of inspiration that they can use to inform their own design. So, as with other items, the first three projects the students predominantly have everything they need to complete the task but for the fourth project they will need to go beyond this information.

5. Collaboration/ 7. Interdisciplinary perspective

I have been running Timber 4 for a few years now and one of the most gratifying moments was when my tutees explained to me that unlike other projects they had worked on they had been forced to work together and collaborate right through their Timber Design project. I was delighted, as this is such a key skill for real life, however I am aware of other projects which are approached as ‘cut and shut’ where students all work independently and then stick their work together into one report. The design of the projects on this unit is such that working independently is just not possible. Every decision impacts on everything else. And hence the best way to work on the project is to sit together in a room and work collaboratively – in an office like environment.

Timber Engineering was the first time I felt as though I was doing ‘engineering’. This is a module that cultivated everything I’d learnt in my previous 3 years; communication, team-work, problem-solving, creativity and innovation. For a person who has never had the opportunity to work at an engineering company as an intern, this was the first real insight and experience I had as a structural engineer.” 

Making the project interdisciplinary is more difficult. The unit is after all just 10 credits, and the students are all designing in timber. They are required to think about architecture, acoustics, lighting, space. But ultimately, they are all acting as timber engineers. I would argue that on this point we are unable to fulfil the requirements of authentic learning. But fortunately, Civil Engineering students are also working on a much larger, more complex design project at the same time, where they must apply a much wider set of multidisciplinary skills. 

8. Integrated Assessment

The design of a theatre – the final project which students are marked on – is integrated right through the unit, being launched in week 2 and running until the end of week 10. The other projects are designed to both teach students and give them the skills to complete this project. There are a number of feedback (feedforward) mechanisms built into the unit – more of which will be discussed next week.

9. Polished Product

One of my aims when writing this unit was that students would produce a portfolio piece. Something that they can take to interview and be proud of. As a result the output is a report with drawings and calculations. The report is linked to the RIBA stages (which are used in industry). And students in previous years have found that the output has been very helpful in interview.

“In regards to recruitment, I would not have gotten my graduate job if it wasn’t for Timber Engineering. When I went in for my interview, the interviewers were amazed by the standards and level of detail that was undertaken in the design of the building. It was physical evidence that showed the recruiters that I had the skills, enthusiasm and ability to undertake responsibilities at their firm.” 

6. Reflection

Which leaves reflection. How do we integrate reflection into this process. I have to be honest, I find reflection hard, or to be more precise I find the articulation of reflection hard. I think, if there was one area that I would like to improve it is reflection. I will talk next week about feedback – and I hope that this will in part lead to reflection. But I know that there is more to it than just reflecting on feedback. One of the challenges is creating space for reflection, and as I sit here writing this I am thinking ‘how can I add some reflective practice into tomorrow?” After all last week, the students completed a project, and this week they start a new one, this feels like the ideal time to pause and reflect on their achievements to date, what they have learnt, and how they want to proceed. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: Quotes taken from an email a student sent me – used with permission

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