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Teaching Engineering Conferences

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This article is on a course called Engineering Conferences which the authors have developed and installed as a mandatory part of the curriculum in three master's degree programs for engineering students. The participants of the course are postgraduates with different nationalities, mostly German, and different technical backgrounds. They study Mechanical Engineering, Simulation and Experimental Technology, or International Business Engineering. The basic idea of the course concept goes far beyond simply teaching the standards of academic writing and skills for using scientific publications. By using a learner-centered approach, the students get engaged in typical activities around an active attendance of a real conference. Students learn to locate the field of their bachelor thesis or project report in the world of research communities, scientific journals and engineering conferences. They learn about conferences matching their bachelor/project topic. They write a paper complying with common academic standards, submit it to a mock-up conference, and review submissions of their fellow students. Students also produce a poster and have to defend it in a poster session held publicly on the campus. Engineering Conferences is a course on scientific communication and presentation that also aims at the development of other skills and competences needed in the world of modern engineering.
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Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 1 of 8 –
Teaching Engineering Conferences
Thomas Zielke, Matthias Neef, and Claudia Fussenecker
Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences (HSD)
thomas.zielke@hs-duesseldorf.de
Abstract This article is on a university course
called Engineering Conferences. It has been developed by
the authors and installed as a mandatory part of the
curriculum in three master’s degree programs for
engineering students. The participants of the course are
postgraduates with different nationalities, mostly
German, and different technical backgrounds. They study
Mechanical Engineering, Simulation and Experimental
Technology, or International Business Engineering.
The basic idea of the course concept goes far beyond
simply teaching the standards of academic writing and
skills for using scientific publications. By using a learner-
centered approach, the students get engaged in typical
activities around an active attendance of a real
conference. Students learn to locate the field of their
bachelor thesis or project report in the world of research
communities, scientific journals and engineering
conferences. They learn about conferences matching their
bachelor/project topic. They write a paper complying with
common academic standards, submit it to a mock-up
conference, and review submissions of their fellow
students. Students also produce a poster and have to
defend it in a poster session held publicly on the campus.
Engineering Conferences is a course on scientific
communication and presentation that also aims at the
development of other skills and competences needed in
the world of modern engineering.
Keywords: engineering curricula, soft skills, student
research, scientific communication, interdisciplinary
teaching, active learning
1. INTRODUCTION
1.1 Engineering Curricula
Engineering curricula are traditionally dominated by
technical teaching contents. This typically comprises
factual knowledge, mathematical and engineering
methods, phenomenological theories, fundamental design
concepts, use of quantitative data and procedures for
achieving some specified aim whether that involves
designing a product or service or solving a problem [29].
Very often, curricula have evolved over many years,
regularly being fitted to the expertise of the faculty’s
teaching staff. Curricula of this kind have long been
criticized for the lack of essential skills and attributes that
are required for engineers in the 21st Century. As Nguyen
argues in a 1998 article [27], engineering curricula should
be designed to develop all the essential skills and
attributes, which could be established by considering the
following points:
the level of acquired knowledge of an engineer
the necessary skills of an engineer
the job requirements of an engineer
personal and professional attributes of an engineer
attitude of an engineer
Today, it is even more evident that many curricula
need reforms in that direction [19, 3]. However, changes
are happening slowly, and engineers take pride in their
classic strengths to the extent that some engineering
curricula themselves are designed by an engineering
methodology [31, 32].
The starting point for the work described in this article
was the design of five new bachelor’s degree programs
and three new master’s degree programs at the faculty of
mechanical and process engineering of a medium-sized
university of applied sciences in Germany.
1.2 ”Soft Skills” for Engineering Students
According to common standards of engineering
education, our course Engineering Conferences is about
”soft skills”. This term is a familiar one in faculty
meetings on engineering curricula, a remarkable fact as
there is little consensus on what this term actually means
and hardly anybody uses the term ”hard skills”. In faculty
discussions, a lack of students’ soft skills is often
complained about by teachers that encounter operational
difficulties with their students in running classes on some
hard skills. Apart from that, discussions are rare about
skills that are outside the engineering domains defined by
the study programs. Although there are numerous
publications on soft skills in engineering education, e.g.
[39, 30, 33, 6], a precise definition of soft skills can not be
found. Engineers are tempted to think of soft skills as
non-technical skills (cf. [27]). But what’s about ”digital
literacy” [11], for example? This is a common term for
describing a set of competencies and technical skills that
increasingly overlap with the elements of a reasonable
Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 2 of 8 –
general education. Another example for the complexity of
the debate about soft skills and hard skills is given by
Piczak and Heidebrecht [29]. They convincingly propose
to teach ”wisdom” as a particular soft skill. This could be
incorporated into curricula by means of an “embedded
model” or a “competency based model”. Wisdom is an
obvious example for a soft skill that very often
outperforms hard skills at solving engineering problems.
For the purpose of this discourse, Levasseur [22] offers
helpful orientation on the nature of soft skills. He
recognizes the following categories:
personal skills, e.g. self-awareness
interpersonal skills, e.g. effective communication
group skills, e.g. the ability to work in teams
organizational skills, e.g. leadership competences
1.3 The ”Aspect Space” of Modern Engineering
Education
What skills and competencies really matter in today’s
engineering jobs? A survey by the Eastern Kentucky
University, USA, asked business executives to list the 10
most important soft skills they wanted new employees to
possess when hired for a position within their
organization. As a major result of this study, Robles
summarizes that ”soft skills are just as good an indicator
of job performance as traditional job qualifications (hard
skills)” [30]. Indeed, the academic distinction between
hard and soft skills does not seem to matter from the
employers’ point of view. The international recruitment
service Monster answers the question “What skills are
Engineering employers looking for?” on its UK website
[1]. “Regardless of the role in which you will be working,
there are a common set of intangible skills that employers
look for across all engineering disciplines: Effective
communication skills, interpersonal skills, technical
knowledge, organizational skills, enthusiasm, and
commitment. This is almost a complete repetition of what
we cited above about soft skills. The point is that modern
engineering education requires both teachers and students
to accept that engineering professionals must possess a set
of skills and competencies which cannot be subdivided
and classified into ”hard”, i.e. important but difficult to
learn, and soft”, i.e. inessential and seemingly easy to
learn. Non-engineering work plays a larger role in jobs
than engineering students expect and the faculties do not
realize that a large proportion of all engineering graduates
eventually work in non-engineering-related jobs [4].
“A modern day engineer is likely to be part of a multi-
disciplinary, multi-cultural, globally dispersed team” [21].
No doubt, working in engineering has become multi-
dimensional, to use a technical term. In a modern vision,
engineering education is multi-dimensional too, covering
a primarily technical dimension and additional
dimensions described as key aspects by Aldert Kamp of
the Delft University of Technology [19]. This is not in
contradiction to the parallel trend of technical
specialization. The acquisition and development of core
knowledge and capabilities in the domain of the
engineering sciences become strongly focused while more
space is created for other aspects.
Fig. 1. The key aspects of engineering education as stated
by Kamp [19], numbered from 1 to 8 (upper part).
Lower part: The courses offered to the master students
in Mechanical Engineering (red: mandatory / blue:
elective specializations) juxtaposed with a matrix of
weights that show a rough estimate of the contributions
a course makes with respect to the key aspects. White
stands for the highest score, black for the lowest. The
authors independently made estimates for the scores.
The illustration shows the average values of the three
estimates.
In an ”aspect space” of engineering education each
course of a study program can contribute to one or more
aspects in different ways and to different degrees. We
analyzed the curriculum of our master’s program
”Mechanical Engineering” as to what extent the
individual courses may contribute to different aspects of
modern engineering education. Figure 1 shows a
juxtaposition of the courses offered to the master students
in Mechanical Engineering and the key aspects as
formulated by Kamp. It has to be said, for the design of
this curriculum, the different aspects relevant for modern
engineering education were not explicitly taken into
account. Therefore the analysis shown in Fig. 1 should be
seen as a basis for further improvements of the
1. Rigor of
engineering
2. Critical thinking and
unstructured
problem solving
3. Interdisciplinary and systems
thinking
4. Imagination, creativity,
initiative
5. Communication and
collab
o
r
a
tion
6.
Global mind-set: diversity and
mobilit
y
7. Ambitious learning culture:
student engagement and professional learning community
8. Employability and lifelong learning
Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 3 of 8 –
curriculum. As stated by Aslaksen [3] “the present
approach of adding a few non-technical subjects to the
engineering curriculum is not effective”. However, with
Engineering Conferences we want to tune our master’s
degree programs significantly towards ”the future of
engineering” [3].
2. THE ROLE OF RESEARCH IN
ENGINEERING STUDY PROGRAMS
Undergraduate students in engineering often have little
exposure to the world of scientific publishing and the
culture of sharing research work. Only postgraduate
students working towards a PhD are confronted with the
necessity to publish and to learn from the publications of
other researchers. While some research oriented
universities offer undergraduate research programs and
special journals for undergraduate publications [18, 35],
bachelor theses at teaching oriented universities often
display significant deficiencies concerning the standards
of technical/scientific writing.
One goal of Engineering Conferences is to create
awareness for academic standards in research and
development and to equip students with basic publication
skills. As only a relatively small proportion of all
graduates think of taking a job in research, it is not
unusual that students ask “Do I need research skills in
working life?” [25]. One may also ask why the aspect
space of engineering education, described in section 1.2,
does not contain explicit references to research work.
Both questions are misleading. By doing research work
and by active participation in a research community, skills
and competencies related to most aspects of a good
engineering education are acquired and developed, as
illustrated in Figure 2.
Research and teaching have at least co-existed if not
cross-fertilized each other for centuries, although it has
been suggested and surveyed that there is little statistical
evidence for a correlation between the two [13]. Today,
there is an increasingly severe conflict of objectives.
University teachers face great pressure to publish papers
in internationally indexed journals, often leading to a
neglect of other academic activities, including teaching
[34]. On the other hand, it can be very beneficial for
students when their teachers have substantial research
experience and ongoing research activities, see section 5.
The problems have to do with the value and the judgment
of research quality in general which is currently
challenged by governmental influence to develop high-
level research in selected universities, see [18]. For the
objective of good engineering teaching, it may be helpful
to remember the medieval meaning of the word research:
“go about seeking” [17]. There is no shortcut for students
from being involved in this activity to become self-reliant
learners. Ideally, research activities are embedded in
undergraduate curricula and courses in a way to enhance
student learning [36, 38, 15]. Students can also be
encouraged to voluntarily attend graduate student
conferences, including the submission of their project
work for publication [7]. At the latest, students gain some
sort of research experience during their bachelor thesis,
which therefore can be regarded as research in their field
of study regardless of quality and outcome. In a
nutshell, research is learning, and learning is research and
should be supported by teaching [26].
We therefore regard the bachelor thesis of each student
as an existing piece of research and take it as a starting
point for the course on engineering conferences within the
master’s degree programs of our faculty. Our concept
follows a research-based approach [14], focusing on the
research process rather than on the research content,
which has already been dealt with during the thesis. In
this process, the students become participants rather than
an audience.
Doing research
and
active participation
in a research
community
learning precision,
depth, methods and
abstraction
research
communities are
about communication
and collaboration,
often within a global scope
no research without
ambitions
(to do better)
no research without
imagination,
creativity
and initiative
practicing
self-reliant learning
questioning
common
tenets and
dealing with
new challenges
1
Rigor of
engineering
2
Critical thinking
and unstructured
problem solving
3
Interdisciplinary
and systems
thinking
4
Imagination,
creativity, initiative
5
Communication
and collaboration
6
Global mind-set:
diversity and
mobility
7
Ambitious
learning culture:
student
engagement and
professional
learning
community
8
Employability
and lifelong
learning
Directly influenced
Indirectly influenced
Fig. 2. Doing research and active participation in a
research community is training for skills and
competencies related to most aspects of a good
engineering education.
3. THE COURSE FRAMEWORK AND THE
EXAMINATION PLAN
Beyond teaching the standards of academic writing
and skills for using scientific publications, we want to get
the students engaged in typical activities around an active
attendance of a real conference. By doing this, most of the
important aspects of modern engineering education
should be addressed either explicitly or implicitly.
For the design of our course, a few publications
provide valuable orientation, concrete ideas and ”lessons
learned”, e.g. [23] and [24]. One experience from running
our course for the very first time in the winter term
2016/2017 has been the importance of firstly the
examination plan, i.e. what do the students have to deliver
for getting good grades, and secondly the means for
raising the motivation of the students for this course.
Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 4 of 8 –
From student feedback we had to realize that many of the
participants thought of Engineering Conferences as a
course on dispensable soft skills that only matter to those
considering a PhD study after the master’s degree. Studies
by Benson et al. [5] show that the motivation of the
students for a particular course within their study program
depends significantly on the students’ perceptions of their
future tasks as engineers. In the current course schedule
we therefore start the term with a session entirely devoted
to Motivation.
Table 1 provides the data of the course Engineering
Conferences as part of the master’s curricula in our
faculty. Figure 3 shows its structure. Basically there are
two phases: Training and Practice. The objectives of the
training phase are a general understanding of the world of
academic research and scientific communication, as well
as gaining experience in professional reflection and self-
reflection. There are no examination elements in this
phase. The course elements of the training phase can be
called Motivation, Orientation, Comprehension, and
Classification & Interrelation.
Table 1: Course Details - Facts and Figures.
Module Name:
Engineering Conferences
Master Program
(3 semesters):
Mechanical Engineering,
Simulation and Experimental
Technology, International Business
Engineering
Module Type:
Mandatory
Credits / Workload:
6 ECTS (European Credit Transfer and
Accumulation System) / 180 hours
Language:
EMI (English as a means of instruction)
Exam Elements:
paper, two paper reviews, poster
presentation
Semester of Attendance:
first, second or third
Number of Participants:
30 per term
The practice phase focuses on course elements that are
part of or belong to a simulated engineering conference.
Whenever applicable, ”EasyChair” (easychair.org) is used
to organize our simulated conference and the activities
associated with it. The elements Publishing Tools &
Standards and Paper Concept deal with preparations for
the publication of an article on a piece of research,
concretely the bachelor thesis. The other elements of the
practice phase are part of a simulation of a real
conference. The ”grand finale” of the course is the poster
session held publicly on the campus. The Poster
Presentation therefore is the examination element with
the highest weight, currently 60% of the total grade. The
other examination elements are the paper submission
(20%) and the delivery of two reviews of papers
submitted by fellow students (10% each).
The course element Conference Session serves two
purposes. First, the students are given the experience of
an oral session of a conference. Second, the Conference
Session allows students who have already been authors of
a real conference paper, accepted by peer-review, to
present their paper to the class. Those students can opt to
earn their credits from the recognition of their publication
experience. At the same time, the other students can draw
motivation from realizing that a peer student actually
succeeded with a submission of a paper at a real
engineering conference. In any case, the Conference
Session also contains talks by invited speakers, usually
researches from our faculty.
Poster Preparation and Poster Presentation are given
the highest weight in the examination plan. For most
students, these two course elements also carry the highest
workload compared with the other elements. Our focus on
the poster as the ”main product” of the course has at least
three good reasons: (1) At quality conferences, most
junior researchers actually present in a poster session. (2)
The learning benefits from working on conference posters
and poster presentations have been well documented [37,
20, 8]. (3) A poster can serve as a kind of masterpiece,
something physical the students can take home and be
proud of.
Motivation
Motivation
Comprehension
Comprehension
Orientation
Orientation
Publishing
Tools & Standards
Publishing
Tools & Standards Paper Concept
Paper Concept
Paper
Compilation &
Submission
Paper
Compilation &
Submission
Peer Review
Peer Review
Poster
Preparation
Poster
Preparation
Poster
Presentation
Poster
Presentation
Conference
Session
Conference
Session
Practice
Training
Classification&
Interrelation
Classification&
Interrelation
Fig. 3. The general course structure and the elements of
Engineering Conferences. Elements that are relevant
for grading are marked with a red outline.
Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 5 of 8 –
4. THE COURSE ELEMENTS -
ACTIVE LEARNING
The previous section describes the framework for the
course Engineering Conferences. The individual course
elements can be designed and put into practice in different
ways. We actually intent to optimize and/or vary the
course elements from term to term, as more student
feedback and practical experience become available.
The general teaching approach is based on the concept
of Active Learning [10]: “Active learning engages
students in the process of learning through activities
and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively
listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking
and often involves group work.”
A detailed description of each course element of
Engineering Conferences is beyond the scope of this
paper. However, we want to briefly describe some ideas,
techniques, approaches, and topics that we found to be
useful for the students and well received by them.
4.1 Motivation
Increasing the motivation of the students for the course
is a subject of the kickoff session. We ask the students to
write down keywords for what they expect to learn by the
course. The keywords are clustered on a pinboard.
Typically, groups of expectations like ”improvement of
English language skills”, ”learning to summarize a lot in
less words”, or ”improvement of presentation skills”
emerge. This provides a link to a lecture on the
importance of this kind of skills and competencies for the
future jobs of the participants. Actually, the introduction
for this article contains the message that this lecture wants
to convey: Doing research and active participation in a
research community is a great training for many skills and
competencies that are needed in engineering jobs.
4.2 Orientation
For their bachelor thesis, students usually work on a
very specific problem. They often do not realize the
likeliness that other researchers worked on the same
problem, somewhere in the world. For novices in a field it
is difficult to even recognize the parallels between similar
projects if the language and/or the technical terms of the
projects’ titles are different. Novices in the world of
sciences are lost and they need orientation.
We have developed an explorative activity by which
students can find fellow students that worked in a similar
technical/scientific field for their bachelor thesis. The idea
was inspired by a project of Hassan-Montero et. al [12].
On the website www.scimagojr.com/shapeofscience/
almost 19,000 scientific journals are represented by dots
on a map which is called The Shape of Science. The size
of a dot indicates the importance (rank) of a journal and
there is much more information about the journals linked
with the dots. The vicinity of two journals on that map
expresses the degree to which the articles in these journals
are interrelated.
Fig. 4. The list of journals cited by a publication creates an
elliptic region on the Shape of Science map. The center
of this region is the ”research focus” of this publication
on a map of subject areas. The example shown was
generated from the journals referenced in this paper.
Fig. 5. The class of summer term 2017 working on the
Shape of Science activity.
The students are given the task to collect all journal
references from their bachelor thesis. They are asked to
browse The Shape of Science for the journal names. Then
they are given a visualization tool developed for
Engineering Conferences on the basis of the data
available from The Shape of Science. As shown in Figure
4, this tool creates an elliptic region on the Shape of
Science map for the list of journals collected from a
publication. We call the center of this region a ”research
focus”. Finally, every student prints out the map showing
his/her research focus. All maps are put on pinboards and
the students split up into distinct ”research communities”
by comparing their maps and discussing similarities and
distinctions of their research. The newly established
Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 6 of 8 –
groups, the research communities within the class, are a
basis for subsequent group work.
4.3 Comprehension / Classification&Interrelation
Many graduates in engineering are not accustomed to
the use of scientific publications for their work. Most of
our students also feel uneasy when being confronted with
scientific/technical texts written in English. The same
applies to professional oral communication using the
English language. We have to meet our students at this
point. Comprehension needs communication. This should
be relatively easy within a group of ”experts” in the same
field, e.g. within our research communities formed within
the class. The group work starts with Elevator Talks [2],
each being a 1-minute opportunity for a group member to
explain the topic of her/his bachelor thesis to the others.
The next task has to be worked on by the whole group. It
is a structured review and analysis of an article that the
group can freely select from a reputed journal in their
field.
Classification & Interrelation is about the techniques
and the knowledge needed for a comprehensive literature
research. The ability to efficiently classify publications as
potentially relevant and important is an essential skill in
the present-day (digital) world of scientific and technical
publications. For novices in a scientific field, discovering
interrelations between one’s own work and that of others
is an additional challenge. As an objective of the practical
course work under this topic, all students redo and
improve the literature research for their bachelor thesis.
4.4 Publishing Tools & Standards
There are many books and articles on scientific paper
writing, [16, 9], just to mention two exceptionally useful
examples. Within the scope of Engineering Conferences
we have to concentrate on teaching the basics and
supporting ”learning by doing” by constructive critical
feedback. In any case, students must know essential
standards and what benefits the use of professional tools
can provide. Additionally, the teachers have to convey
awareness for quality and professionality, in the sense of
an ambitious learning culture. As an example, we briefly
describe the teaching content on citation rules and
reference management. Students must know that:
Acknowledging the sources of information and ideas
is essential, not something optional.
There are several widely used referencing styles, but
in every publication one style has to be used
consistently.
Each conference or journal asks for the use of one
particular style, usually a document template is
provided.
Correct citations are required for all types of sources:
internet, lecture notes, TV programs, videos etc., all
can be cited properly [28].
Usually, references do not have to be typed in
manually, a complete citation in several formats is
often provided by the publisher, generation via the
Digital Object Identifier (DOI) is a convenient option
too.
For all projects that eventually result in a report,
thesis, or some sort of publication, a reference
management system should be used.
The practical exercises for the teaching/learning
session on citation rules and reference management use
the open source software JabRef (jabref.org). As with
other tools, we prefer software that all students can work
with on their private computers free of charge and without
commercial obligations. At the same time, we try to make
students understand the general concepts and features of a
software species, things that can also be used with other
products. After completing the exercises the students have
the list of references of their bachelor thesis in a BibTex
database.
5. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
We have developed and implemented a course on
scientific communication and presentation for the
master’s degree programs at the faculty of mechanical and
process engineering of a medium-sized university of
applied sciences in Germany. In their bachelor study,
most of our students have not been confronted with the
necessity to publish and/or to learn from research
publications. Only few students are fluent in written and
spoken English. As the name Engineering Conferences
suggests, the course is designed around a mock-up
conference, where students have to present the results of
their bachelor thesis as a poster. The combination of the
following features distinguishes the course from similar
approaches:
There is a storyline (conference preparation) and a
public final (presentation day).
The students are assumed to have had the experience
of a substantial technical project, usually the bachelor
thesis, but no experience with scientific publications.
The students are engaged as researchers, turning the
publication of their thesis into a project.
The course is mandatory for all master students of the
faculty.
The teachers are from within the faculty and have
extensive experience as active researchers.
The course concept can be easily copied and
integrated into any master’s degree program in
engineering.
Proc. 2017 Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA17) Conf.
CEEA17; Paper 048
University of Toronto; June 4 7, 2017 – 7 of 8 –
Engineering Conferences is the first course of its kind
at our university. The design and the first implementation
of the course has been a challenge and a learning
experience for the authors, as the teaching objectives do
not match any of their usual teaching domains. However,
it turned out that practical experience in engineering,
teaching experience in classical engineering subjects, an
active involvement in research, being author of articles in
scientific journals, and having published at engineering
conferences are the prerequisites for running a course like
the one described in this article.
While our course concept may serve as a blueprint for
other engineering faculties, we also put this course in the
context of modern engineering education. We argue that
student participation in research is vital for reaching the
objectives of engineering education. This participation
should be accompanied by courses like Engineering
Conferences but the research activities themselves should
become an integral part of many courses in the
engineering curricula [36].
Within the framework described in section 3 there is
room and flexibility for future course improvements, in
particular as to the effectiveness and the range of active
learning methods. We also need to find reliable methods
of evaluating the contributions of the course to the
success of our master’s degree programs, in terms of the
qualification of our master’s graduates, their
employability, and their satisfaction.
Acknowledgements
The authors want to thank Jens Lippel for the
development of the visualization tool for the Shape of
Science activity.
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