Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Conferring Benefits: How integrated learning projects developed my skills

Ben Sharp, Cohort 2017

It was approaching the end of my third year in Sheffield when Gary Wood (Head of SELA) approached Dan Habbershaw (Cohort 2017) and me to co-author a paper for education conference ESLTIS 19 (Enhancing Student Learning through Innovative Scholarship). This meant that both my time with SELA and my Bachelor’s degree were concluding at an alarming rate of deadlines, reports and exams. But I bit Gary’s hand off at the opportunity to co-author a paper on Integrative Learning Projects. Despite my finals, I was coping and managing my workload effectively because of the Projects that I had been involved with in my time in SELA, that were integrated into the series of workshops and guest talks that Gary had organised.

In the first year of SELA, Dan and I led the cohort of 28 driven engineers to deliver two amazing public engagement projects, reaching over 2500 school children and 7000 members of the public. The Projects were called ‘Thinking Inside the Box’ and ‘The Theatre of Engineering’.

If you follow SELA’s progress you will have observed how successful these were and how much of a positive impact we had when trying to excite people about the work and research the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering does, and the opportunities engineering can provide to young people. What you won’t have seen is the challenges that we faced along the way, and being a year long project there were lots of them! At times Dan and I felt like we had exhausted our efforts of trying to deliver the projects to the standard we had envisioned. Despite this, we did succeed, and ultimately this was because over the year our leadership skills developed. We started and finished the year as passionate engineers but found we had more experience, motivation and balance upon its conclusion. It was this journey that we decided to reflect on when writing our paper for the ELSTIS19 conference, and how the SELA programme enabled us to maximise our potential using authentic integrated learning projects.

The Conference

The conference took place in Edinburgh Napier University, where we were met by teaching academics and university lecturers from across the UK and Europe. Being two of only three undergraduate students at the event, Dan and I quickly found that we were able to provide student perspective, feedback and insight to what other lecturers had found in their practice. Gaining insight into the challenges that university staff face when establishing group project teams, providing fair means of peer assessment and improving team reflection and feedback were all topics explored and detailed over the two days.

Having no prior experience in Higher Education teaching, the learning curve was steep for us, but the questions we had to ask to gain understanding helped generate conversation throughout the presentations and workshops, that ultimately let others reflect on their teaching methods compared to their peers.

Perhaps the most applicable aspect of the conference, for me, was discussing how to create methods of peer feedback that allow individuals to not feel criticised through use of ‘appreciation’ and ‘requesting’ statements.

Our Presentation

The busy nature of the Conference meant that there were two sessions running parallel to our presentation. Despite this, many people attended our talk and were keen to hear about our experience of skills development through the use of integrative learning projects.

Gary established what SELA is, what it aims to achieve, and how he organises the programme to provide countless opportunities for keen engineers. Dan and I presented the key factors that enabled the integrated learning projects to benefit us. We had reflected that an open-ended brief, authenticity, opportunity to fail, and trust and empowerment were critical to its success.

After the presentation we were approached by lots of university staff from across the UK and beyond, who were keen to discuss why Dan and I were motivated to be involved with SELA, and how we had gained so much in our time with the programme. To us the answer was simple: SELA provides unparalleled opportunity at the University of Sheffield to network, learn and develop your professional skills, if you are willing to try hard enough to achieve your goals. Every engineer that graduates will have technical competency, and experience of working in a team. SELA sets engineering graduates apart by inspiring its members to continuously seek opportunities to further their Professional Development, and give back to communities, networks and businesses by delivering projects that effect real positive change.

SELA has been the single most important part of my university experience, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had to talk about it. Hopefully we were able to inspire other universities to develop similar programmes, to create a new generation of well-rounded and passionate engineers.

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