Science and Engineering a university for the real world

Making it work: industry experience boosting postgraduate study

9th March 2020

In a competitive job market, industry experience and connections are going to help any new graduate make in-roads to their new career. Understanding how to provide these meaningful learning experiences is key for universities to design effective, meaningful postgraduate courses.

Without further training and education, employment can stagnate, and employees often find themselves at a professional dead end. Postgraduate study can elevate an employee to the next level, but how can they demonstrate their new skills and knowledge to prospective employers?

The problem for universities

Undergraduate degrees are often designed with core components that get students in the door to experience their first taste of what things are like in the professional world. It’s called work-integrated learning, and it’s a great way for students to get a feel for their future industry.

Dr Azharul Karim, course coordinator for the Master of Professional Engineering, explained the benefit.

 “Students get work experience, get to know the industry, and can see the link between theory and practice. It’s a very powerful method to link students to industry.”

“But for postgraduate students, that initial experience isn’t what they’re after.

“Postgraduate students have already been working in industry, and now they need to improve specific skills. They need advanced knowledge, so they come back to university.

 “They want professional transformation—they want to build on their experience and expertise and develop niche skills that can get them that career progression, or pay rise, or career change,” Dr Karim said.

Dr Karim found that the problem is that postgraduate-level learning is often founded in theoretical concepts without much link to practical applications. And practical experience is key for postgraduate students who want professional transformation.

“They need real-world learning and authentic assessment, and we need to deliver, but universities don’t seem to have it figured out. They need to ask: how can curriculum change to deliver meaningful, transformative industry experience to postgraduate students?”

Creating a new learning experience

Most of Dr Karim’s postgraduate engineering students come to his classroom with some years of professional experience under their belts.

“Getting familiar with their industry isn’t the primary focus for masters-level study,” said Dr Karim.

“The focus then becomes more about real-life application of the management skills they’d be learning during their degree.

“They needed to put their learning into practice to move into managerial and leadership roles within their industry.”

Previously, according to Dr Karim, students hadn’t been engaged with unit content or satisfied with learning outcomes.

“When I took over a couple of years ago, student satisfaction was low. We did a lot of research about how we could increase their engagement.

“They wanted a higher level of active learning. Consistently I got feedback that they wanted industry internships and work-integrated learning.”

However, the Master of Engineering was only a 12-month course so finding the time to introduce an industry-embedded unit was challenging.

Dr Karim also contended with the fact that 80% of his cohort were international students, which meant they didn’t have established industry connections in Australia.

After consulting with industry colleagues and fellow researchers, Dr Karim felt he needed to take the unit from paper to practice.

“We wanted the course to be engaging and successful,” he explained.

 “If we designed the course properly, we could get most of our students engaged and getting the most out of their experience.”

Reimagining the curriculum, he redeveloped a core unit of professional practice to focus on project-based learning (PBL).

A successful new model

For Dr Karim, the unit has been a huge success. Students rated the unit an average of 4.7 out of 5, up from 3.5 out of 5 in previous years.

Students who’d previously been disengaged or who struggled initially with the unit content had a transformative experience.

“They came to me and said this was the best unit, and one of the best learning experiences they’d had. It’s life-long learning,” Dr Karim said.

“Even if they struggled with the concepts and technology to begin with, they enjoyed seeing everything come together in a real-world context.

“They said they felt more confident that they can apply the theories, that they have better opportunities to find jobs.”

What is project-based learning?

Real-world PBL is group work where students can apply their knowledge and link with real projects. It’s not always necessarily industry focused. Its value lies in students working with real data and real information, which can give a unique perspective.

It also helps students prepare for their lives after graduation—if they’ve contributed to projects with real-world applications, it’ll look even better to future employers.

“We want to get them familiar with real-life environments because this will help them get a job at completion,” Dr Karim said.

“PBL can also complement theory-heavy coursework by providing an opportunity to practise soft skills like teamwork, time management and project management.”

Dr Karim embedded groups of students within industry, where they would collaborate to develop a working Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system for an existing company.

ERP connects different parts of a company through a central database, which helps optimise resources and make sure the company is working at maximum efficiency.

Students focused on analysis and visualisation of real company data to negotiate a genuine solution to the company’s problems.

“We did a condensed learning of the theory over four weeks and started the PBL from week 2.

"Students completed the information-gathering phase while they were learning the theory and started the practical side of database development,” Dr Karim explained.

“The companies the students were placed in also contributed to evaluating the students’ final output, giving the students direct feedback from potential future employers.”

Students feedback

Shaghayegh Balali found that the unit provided important practical experience and helped develop much-needed practical skills.

“I developed a deep understanding of the ERP concept and learned so much developing an ERP system for a real industry project,” she said. “We developed ERP for five departments within a company. The results benefited them in a significant way, although future challenges would be regularly updating the system and training employees to use and interpret it.

“This unit has been my favourite subject, and I’ve started looking for work in ERP. I definitely got the skills to start my journey towards this career.”

Kinnari Shetty’s background is in engineering, risk management and engagement management. Her project team developed an ERP system from scratch for a construction company. “They had no ERP system in place when we started,” she explained.

“We helped the company improve its process flow and efficiency by automating all the business processes. Our system improved productivity by letting system users focus on complex activities instead of redundant activities.

“The industry partnership was extremely helpful. It prepared me to work with people from different backgrounds and showed me how collaboration can help us achieve more than we can as individuals.”

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