All academic programs have learning objectives. The necessary studies are divided into subjects, and correlations are made between them. Usually there are 40 subjects in a single bachelor’s degree and between 10 and 20 in a graduate degree. Up to this point, everything appears to be normal. Things start to seem a bit different when one considers an underlying hypothesis as important as often forgotten: that students combine all of the knowledge they acquire in their different subjects. In the real world there are no purely accounting, thermodynamics, algebra, strength of materials, marketing, or humanities problems, to name a few common subjects in different programs. Graduates are supposed to be well-educated professionals able to apply what they’ve learned and help solve complex problems. However, those problems have multiple facets: social, technical, economic, legal, ethical, etc. As a result, professionals must be able to employ all the necessary resources from what they’ve learned and create the appropriate synergies. Unfortunately, the majority of academic systems make teaching into a knowledge silo; students learn each subject, but are not able to develop an overall view involving all of things they’ve learned. Students pass and graduate, but don’t fulfill the true objective of learning. The Graduation Project is insufficient to bring together and put into practice everything students learn. This is frequently brought to light when many graduates join the workforce and show their inability to apply that holistic vision to complex social and technical problems.
Project-based learning is the method recommended by the National Academies Press in the United States and it is the one that has been used for more than six years at the School of Architecture, Engineering & Design. The DNA of the method we use includes project-based learning, continuous assessment, and self-assessment by students. Without feedback there is no progress; that is why continuous assessment is the ideal complement to project-based learning. Receiving evaluations from others is good and it is undoubtedly necessary in the academic setting, but that alone will not foster the maturity required of good professionals. That’s why students are encouraged to assess their own work; that helps them develop the necessary criteria and maturity.
In the project-based learning method, students work on several projects in different courses each academic year; this allows them to support the theoretical knowledge they’ve gained with practical activities. Only that which can be applied successfully can be considered to be understood. But the method goes much further than that. One essential part of the project-based learning method are so-called integration projects. In these projects, students work on a project in which they must apply the bodies of knowledge from different subjects. For example, in the Industrial Systems Engineering Bachelor’s Degree an extraordinary project involving two subjects is carried out: Theory of Machines and Mechanisms and Automatic Systems and Control. In Aerospace Engineering there is an impressive project involving no less than four subjects: Fluid Mechanics II, Aerodynamics and Aeroelasticity, Graphic and Mechanical Design, and Management Skills.
A big picture vision is precisely one of the key elements of the systemic approach, the paradigm for analysis and complex problem solving. An academic method simply cannot be envisaged if it does not stimulate and support the big picture vision, where students really combine everything they have learned and are able to successfully put that knowledge to use. The experience shows that through those integration projects, the walls of the knowledge silos are torn down and students are able to really see the big picture. The effect is even more extraordinary when several integration projects are done over the course of their studies. The important thing is not only to understand what should be done, how, and why; one must create the appropriate automatic systems to avoid the frequent gaps between theoretical knowledge and knowledge applied in practice. The human brain works in two modes: automatic, or system 1, and conscious, or system 2. With integration projects, students get used to combining areas of knowledge, which affords them that extraordinary automatic system to take on problems with a global or holistic view. This is what makes them into true professionals able to add value to their companies, their customers, and society in general. Integration projects are wonderful links between the projects done in class and the Graduation Project. All of this allows students to be able to apply what they’ve learned. That is the true objective of learning. That is what companies so highly value in our graduates. That is the magic of integration projects.