Metaskills for Engineers - Nurturing Professional Growth in Engineering Education | Päivi Viitaharju and Taru Owston

In engineering education, it is not common to focus on setting one’s own goals and consciously developing professional growth. Yet after conquering the basics of science, it would be important to start developing such metaskills. We had a chance to try out helping the learning and growth of these metaskills – both in our students and ourselves.


In the following we will describe the implementation of a course with a specific focus on developing the students’ metaskills in engineering education at TAMK. The course was worth three credit units (ECTS), but the experiment was worth a great deal more as it was part of an ongoing paradigm shift taking place in our university.

Aim: Developing metaskills

Our focus was developing engineering education. Engineering students need the foundations of science, mathematics, physics and chemistry which provide the ABC for helping to solve problems and create new processes and products. However, on top of this, when a stage of “junior professionalism” is reached, engineering students need to learn to apply what they have learned in science as well as learn how to manage themselves and others. The changing digital world makes accessing information easy and understanding what to do with it difficult. In terms of styles of working, teamwork and networking seem the way forward. We want to help our students develop skills in these areas.

We are both long established teachers at TAMK. We have cooperated before, so working together was a natural choice. Our aim was to jointly lead a new course entitled Professional Skills in Business and use it to help students take responsibility for their own learning. Our specific goal was to develop engineering training in a way that would help the students become more independent learners and thinkers. We also wanted to create a setting where we, too, could learn and develop our own metaskills, so that we could be more agile in facilitating learning processes.

Supportive structures

We had many kinds of support: from the management and from our coaches. We were encouraged by educational theory. What we did would not have been possible without the efforts of the university management to support more and more effective learning. They have chosen to go about this using an effective way themselves: by inviting teachers to attend in-house professional development. – Our experiment was part of our own training as coaches. We planned the implementation in 2015 and realised it in the spring of 2016. The theoretical framework was experiential learning, especially that of David Kolb (1984). The students should apply knowledge they had learned and reflect on the experiences they would have during the course. In our coaching training we were introduced to various applications of experiential learning.

The setting

The aims of the course Professional Skills in Business are described in the curriculum (TAMK 2013a) thus,”The student can use his/her professional knowledge in business life situations. The aim of the course is to develop the professional business communication skills in conjunction with learning the professional skills. It will provide a good base for using English as a professional language.”

Similar courses have existed before but now the idea was to focus solely on metaskills using an approach that would empower the students more.

The course is offered to 3rd and 4th year students in Bioproducts and Processes but as the focus is not on substance, it is possible for international students, and students from other programmes to participate. This time we had seven Finnish students and five international students.

On this course, the focus was on the process. In our experience, this was scary.

Even though learning engineering substance matter was not the aim, we decided that Bioproducts and Processes would be the platform we would work on. On this course, the focus was on the process. In our experience, this was scary. In one of our earliest sessions, Päivi led a learning café session where the students processed what they already knew of raw materials, manufacturing and converting processes, and about all the possible products made from wood fibres. This was used as a basis for the next activity which was to ask the students to pair up and share which part interested them most and of which part of the process they had the most experience. In our experience, grouping activities with engineering students work best when they are related to hard facts. Above all, it is very important to have a session at the beginning that helps people to get to know each other so that trust starts to build.
picture1viitaharjujaowston
Picture 1 One outcome produced by the students in the learning café session (Photo: Viitaharju, P. 2016)

Assessment

TAMK uses a joint assessment framework where participants of a course are assessed on what they know, how they act and how they are. In order to gain the best grades, a student needs to be able to see the bigger picture, to analyse and generalise (Knowing). In terms of Acting, the student should show ability to choose creatively. And he or she should be able to deal with feedback and work in a community (Being) (TAMK 2013b). We were in the wonderful position that neither of us had to assess the ability level in the subjects we normally teach. We decided the grade would be based on three tasks:
1. A report where the student does some research on what are the skills needed in business in the future. S/he reports what a source that s/he considers an authority says about the skills needed in the future.
2. A forum entry where the student publishes his/her own goals
3. The learning journal. In addition to showing the ability to analyse and make connections the journal would show how much work the student had put into the course.

We encouraged the students to add reflections each week to their online learning journal and then write a final report with more in-depth analysis. Taru was also writing her own journal and during one session when she was not there the students had a look at it and compared it against the assessment framework. This apparently gave them ideas on how to write their own journal.

Learning takes place where risks take place

The actual running of the course was where we had to leave our comfort zone. We wanted the students to set their own aims. This would perhaps have been easier if we had the same students all the time. As it happened we had a different combination of participants for the first three sessions. So the great plan of establishing a common understanding of what we actually mean by “professional skills in business” did not quite work. This, however, did not prevent learning taking place in the end.

In engineering education the goals of a course are usually related to the subject matter. Good grades are achieved when understanding of predefined topics has been shown. On this course, the focus was on the process. In our experience, this was scary. Our job was to facilitate situations where students set their own goals and worked out ways to reach them. Their goals were varied: learning more English, learning about intercultural communication, learning skills needed to manage a paper mill. We facilitated check points, reflection and teaming up with others who had similar goals. We used brainstorming and coaching methods to increase interaction and to keep the students focused. But as the goals were personal and working on them took place outside the class we had no way of knowing what kind of learning was taking place, if any.

We have heard many say that the greatest challenge in using a coaching approach is to know when to intervene. On our course, this was demonstrated in two cases particularly, the international food party and a class session designed by students.

The food party was a project taken on by the international students. Päivi offered the use of her family home for this and Taru initiated the planning process with the students. After that we had no control and it was really hard not to offer advice, not to check on whether the invitations had gone out or the logistics planned. But after a most delightful evening of cooking, eating, music and anecdotes, and having read the learning journals we know that the students did learn and accumulate practical skills.
picture2viitaharjujaowston
Picture 2 Food party, an excellent way to share skills and increase cultural awareness (Photo: Viitaharju, P. 2016)

In another situation, intervention did seem necessary. Based on their respective goals, the students formed groups that were in charge of one 90-minute session. These were scheduled, and in the wake of the successful food party we went to the class excited about what was to come – only to discover that nothing had been prepared. This was a point where it would have been easy to fall into teacher mode, to expostulate with the students and then quickly work out something for the group to do. After a short emergency meeting, we thought the skill we want the students to develop now is planning a workable session in a short time. And so we agreed that the other students would go and write their learning journals whilst Taru helped the group to set their aims and plan the session. The session helped everyone towards their goals and, judging by the learning journals, the organising group learned something significant about responsibility. Quoting (with permission) a student’s learning journal:

“We were supposed to have prepared a session with our group for this day. However, none of us wanted to do the actual work, so we were always saying “next week we will do it”. The problem was that the night before this day we suddenly realized that we had not done anything yet. It was already too late, so we went to the lesson without preparing anything. I honestly thought Taru and Päivi would do the session instead of us, because we had to do something during the lesson and we clearly didn’t have anything in our minds.

However, Taru and Päivi said we must do a session today, giving us no other choice but working and taking responsibility. It was actually really interesting that they made us work and made us realize it’s not that hard at all. The secret is that we can’t say “We will do it later…”, because if we have a deadline, we have a deadline. I was so surprised, that all the others did what we asked them to do and at the end of the session I think the teachers and also our team were satisfied.” (Jancsó, 2016)

As can be expected, the two other student-led sessions were well planned and made us proud of our junior professionals. One student pointed out that preparing a longer session provided a good challenge because so far he had only been asked to give presentations.

Next steps

We are pleased we embarked on this journey that was confusing and scary but paid great dividends. We have gained experience in working as a team and facilitating the students’ learning journey. Working with engineering students is always delightful but on a course like this we got to know the students in a new way and also had a chance to grow ourselves.

We now have experience and examples of work and of learning journals that we can use to show others what is expected. We agree with the students who commented on the name of the course. They wrote that “Professional Skills in Business” promises a business specific approach. “Becoming A Professional” would perhaps describe the intentions better. But whatever the name of the course, facilitating the development of metaskills is a mission possible and well worth taking in order to prepare engineering students for the future.


Acknowledgements

We want to thank our managers, Dr. Ulla Häggblom and Ms Tarja Haukijärvi, for giving us the opportunity to take part in training and develop the curriculum in this way. We are also indebted to the coaches in TAMK ProAkatemia who supported us, encouraged us and made us work hard in order to grow.


References

Janscó, E. Student, TAMK. 2016. Learning Journal for Professional Skills in Business at TAMK (unpublished).
Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
TAMK 2013a. Curriculum. Read 10.10.2016. http://opinto-opas-ops.tamk.fi/index.php/fi/167/fi/13249/15I575/830/year/2015
TAMK 2013b. Joint Assessment Framework. Read 10.6.2016. https://intra.tamk.fi/web/tutkinto-opinto-opas/arviointi


About the authors

Päivi Viitaharju, senior lecturer, has a background in the paper industry. She teaches processes needed to create and convert bioproducts. Päivi is increasingly interested in converting her teaching sessions into learning sessions.

Taru Owston, senior lecturer in English and Communication has also worked in student guidance counselling. Her areas of interest are professional growth, integrated language and substance learning as well as international groups.