Project based learning is an essential part of any student’s education and particularly the UTC student.
With excellent business partnerships, students are able to gain first-hand real world experience that will give them access to industry resources, knowledge and skillsets. These real-world experiences prepare students for the workforce by meeting industry standards and expectations. And UTC Reading is leading the way with their innovative approach to project based learning.
UTC Reading’s first year has been a journey of discovery. Principal Joanne Harper said:
"This first year has been about figuring out what project based learning means to us. And we feel we have finally cracked it."
Joanne goes on to explain that UTC Reading is taking a three strand approach.
“The first is pairing our partners up with BTEC modules to bring the industry right into lessons with partners supporting delivery and assessment, the second is to provide students with short-burst projects, sponsored by our partners, to give our students quick and meaningful access to industry resources and the third are big school-wide projects with briefs provided by industry partners."
It is this third strand that has been the most ambitious undertaking in UTC Reading’s first year. The school dedicated themselves to making a success of long term, school-wide projects that are partner-driven, real life, and aligned with the curriculum. Joanne explains:
"It was important for us to just jump right in and start doing these huge projects otherwise we might have never have started. And after seeing the positive impact it’s had on the students and their learning – I’m so glad we did!"
At UTC Reading, project based learning is a school-wide experience with full participation from partners, students, teachers, support staff and senior leadership. This complete ownership is essential for a project to succeed as each person has their own role to play. The projects are also not limited to a few hours a week. Rather they are fully integrated into the student’s day-to-day educational experience. Teachers align what they are teaching in the classroom with the project objectives and tasks. Partners offer students off-site experiences and senior leadership allows for full project days so students experience an effective professional work day.
All students are expected to meet the high professional expectations laid down by the client during the brief. However, there are opportunities for students to really excel as team leaders, show-off their technical expertise and impress the client with their charisma. Each student has a specific role to play in their team and while each student’s assigned outcome may be different, each experience should be enriching and positive.
After trialling their first two projects, one setting up a Business Plan supported by CGI, the second with Microsoft and developing apps, UTC Reading embarked on an even larger collaboration with Peter Brett Associates (PBA), a leading infrastructure consultancy to bring students a real-world civil engineering project and a taste of the tendering process. The brief was to re-design the space between the new Reading station and the new interchange with consideration of the community, surrounding buildings, sustainability, and economic viability.
The project began in February with an afternoon dedicated to student’s understanding the brief and making contact with the client. Students were given a presentation outlining the brief, the deliverables and relevant background information to be used to inform their solutions. PBA provided each team with a packet of technical drawings, a Gantt chart for time scales and the letter of tender. Students and tutors were also provided with a scheme of work and project guide to help reduce this challenging task into manageable chunks.
Tutors played a key role in the PBA project right from the beginning to ensure the curriculum was aligned with the project tasks and deliverables. Almost every subject, even foreign languages, were able to make connections between what they were teaching in their classrooms and the deliverables of the brief. Within lessons and during enrichment time, subject teachers were responsible for providing subject specific knowledge and resources to support students in their achievement of the project’s objectives. For example engineering teacher Guy Pickett-Jones, facilitated students’ use of Prodigy’s online programme to become Autodesk Certified Users in AutoCAD. This gave students the skills needed to create the technical drawings and fly-through required to communicate their designs and meet the project deliverables.
"The project has fed into the entire curriculum; Geography, English, IT, Engineering. It has allowed students to gain perspective. They can see how modules like report writing in English or population demographics in Geography can be applied outside of lessons. Especially at the end of the project when everything comes together."Nicola Gibson
Teacher of English and Humanities
In addition to curriculum alignment, tutors are responsible for guiding each team through the project, its tasks and providing formative assessment at each stage based on the T-shaped learning. This learning model, developed by the NEF: the Innovation Institute, endeavours to ensure students are prepared appropriately to become new technologists through technical knowledge and experience, transferable professional skills and transferable personal qualities. Each strand is assessed throughout the project in relation to their technical role within their team, the deliverables presented to the client and the overall performance and contribution to their team.
Full participation from Peter Brett Associates also contributed greatly to the project’s success. PBA generously dedicated their time and resources to the project, resulting in an experience for the students that was grounded in professional expectations and industry knowledge. Martin Dix, Partner at Peter Brett Associates, identifies the motivation behind their generous involvement:
"Our engagement with the UTC allows us to spot talent and be involved in the nurturing of aspiring engineers at a key stage of their development. It provides industry exposure to students and opens their eyes to future career options."
PBA also provided a mentor for each team. These mentors met four times with their team, providing the students with expert guidance during the project, giving support and formative feedback, ensuring students were aware of industry practices, standards and expectations. The mentors provided ongoing assessment that was used as part of the weighting during the judging process. This helped identify teams that maintained their motivation throughout the project, worked well as a team and practised good project management. One mentor, Jenny Hughes, found the experience mutually beneficial.
"I’ve been really impressed with the originality of some of the students' ideas and how they’ve used technical skills to illustrate how their ideas have developed. It’s been rewarding for the mentors too, reinforcing the importance of being able to explain and summarise complex engineering and project concepts. A really enjoyable experience overall."
In July, the project culminated in an exhibition-style presentation of each team’s work. Judges were invited to visit each team’s project space to identify the five teams to be shortlisted for the formal presentations a week later at the PBA offices. It was an exciting day for the students to see the hard work of their teams come together. Sophie, the Project Manager of shortlisted team Code 1, explains:
"We’ve got the sense of a real project and how what we learn relates to real life. I’ve learned so much about working as a team, too."
Her team-mate, Danielle, agrees:
"This project has really put our subjects into perspective. I can now see how my lessons come into play in the professional world."
The judges were equally impressed with the solutions students were presenting.
"Their confidence and professionalism was outstanding. All the teams really put their best work forward and should be proud of all they have achieved."Jennifer King
Judge and project guide author
Elizabeth Orchard, an engineer at PBA and a key visionary of the project felt the project had achieved its goal of introducing students to engineering and its eclectic range of skills.
"When we began planning this project with UTC Reading, most students found it difficult to explain what engineering entailed. But the students’ fantastic work clearly shows they have embraced the necessary skills. A few students have even decided to pursue engineering as a career."
On the 9th of July, the five shortlisted teams, Brunel 4, Chips 4, Code 1, Faraday 3 and Brunel 1, presented their final work to a panel of judges at the PBA offices. Anwar, the project manager from Brunel 1, reflects on the experience:
"I found the experience challenging but also motivational as it gave us experience with possible business associates. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the workplace and it will help me feel more relaxed in future business interviews."
When asked if this experience will influence his future, Anwar said:
"I’d like to go into finance and IT and the skills I’ve learned from PBA will certainly help me progress in my field."
The PBA team announced the winners at the Celebration Event on the 11th of July. The judges found their decision difficult since all the teams were professional and confident in their final presentations to the judging panel. But ultimately it was Brunel 4 who impressed the judges most with their creative fly-through built in Minecraft, Heathrow check in points and sleeping pods. Each member of the first place team was awarded a year-long membership to the Faraday Institute at Cambridge, a tour of the Cow Lane Viaduct by Network Rail, PBA goodie bag, a hardback copy of Adam Hart’s ‘Engineers’ and a certificate. Thomas Stanley, the project manager of Brunel 4, also won the individual award for outstanding contribution to his team. He was awarded mentoring for a year by a professional in the industry of his choice. Faraday 3 was awarded first runners up with an excellent solution including a rooftop garden, covered market and provided in-depth geology and hydrology research within their report. Brunel 1 was awarded second runners up.