Let’s engineer a musical instrument together: Creating effective staff-student partnerships for problem-based learning in engineering

Authors: Jude Brereton, Frank Stevens and Andy Hunt
Department of Electronic Engineering, University of York


This workshop describes the authors’ experience of designing, developing and teaching a new masters-level module which incorporates problem-based learning in an audio engineering context. Students work with staff to design, build and test an interactive audio engineering product, such as an electronic musical instrument.

We outline the pedagogical framework for the module which allows students to focus their own creativity around a core of fundamental skills, techniques and knowledge.  We describe how we create shared knowledge between staff and students, bringing together skills and techniques they have been practising in a number of modules on their programme, and guiding students towards a deeper level of evaluation of the software/hardware systems they build.

We explore the open-ended nature of the module assessment task, which requires that staff and students share knowledge, drawing on diverse experiences and numerous sources. Staff use a coaching model to guide students towards their self-defined assessment goal, allowing students to be active participants in the co-creation of the module. We also discuss the challenges of assessing a module of this kind, given the variety of submitted work.

We also discuss student evaluation of the module, including their experience of shared responsibility for their own learning. Finally there is an opportunity for the audience to experience and engage with (in a somewhat shortened format) the main features of this team-taught module, highlighting the importance of creating effective staff-student partnerships in problem-based learning.


Chair: Scott Slorach

Steve Reich? Jean-Michel Jarre? Techno? The unique coming together of rhythm, bass and lead, using instruments created and played by delegates, and conducted impressively and against many odds by Andy Hunt, produced sounds that transcended – or perhaps transgressed – a number of genres. This was the culmination of a highly interactive, problem-based workshop which highlighted aspects of a masters module where students interact with tutors in developing an audio engineering product. The latter can be an instrument or a product which creates visualisations of audio data.

Creativity and innovation are at the core of the module, both in terms of its design and its intended outcomes. Students can draw upon their own knowledge, skills and experiences, together with those of their tutors. In the workshop, this partnership, and the creative and experimental aspects of the module, was demonstrated by delegates acting as students, facilitated by a team of tutors, experimenting with miniature pieces of electronic audio equipment to discover the latters’ functionality and outputs, and what could be created by joining a number of them together in different ways. Observing this process, it was also interesting to see the differences in delegates’ approaches to the problem, with a number of activists and theorists identifiable…

Through experimentation, facilitation and a little motivation, instruments were created and, with lights dimmed, the unique performance took place. In its aftermath, discussion focussed on the assessment of the module and, in particular, the challenge of assessing a variety of outputs created by students who bring to the module a variety of prior knowledge, skills and experience. Assessment takes into account not only the output but the development process, and delegates were shown examples of media created by students to present their individual development processes. These offer a very interesting alternative to a more traditional reflective portfolio because they enable students better to demonstrate intellectual skills outcomes: traditional assessment is often of the outputs of intellectual skills rather than skills themselves. In addition, the close partnership between faculty and students, and the former’s knowledge of the individual students capabilities from earlier elements of the programme, meant that learning gain could play a role in summative assessment.

Overall, a highly informative and engaging workshop, which not only demonstrated how student and staff could work in partnership on creative projects reflecting mutual interests and experiences, but also provided a number of interesting ideas around assessment of creative problem-based learning.

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