Perceived long term value of industry project-based design courses: Alumni reflections from two decades of the Product Development Project
Editor: Ekströmer, Philip; Schütte, Simon and Ölvander, Johan
Author: Mikkonen, Maria; Tuulos, Tiina; Björklund, Tua
Institution: Aalto University Design Factory, Swinburne University of Technology
As the landscape of higher education is changing with increased competition, being able to clearly articulate learning outcomes and their significance to students is becoming more and more important for universities. Project-and problem-based industry collaboration has been on the rise in order to cultivate more ‘work life skills’. Typically, student feedback is collected at the end of such courses, perhaps augmented by feedback collected before and during the course as well. However, during their studies, students have yet limited understanding of professional activities in their discipline and work life, and thus may not be able to accurately evaluate the usefulness and applicability of the learning experience from a long-term perspective. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to gain better understanding of the real-world impact of these project-and problem-based courses in the long run, and what skills and attitudes alumni from project-and problem-based industry collaboration courses have found useful and utilized in development activities in their current careers. Moreover, we were interested to study if they differ from perceived skills learned directly from the course. In order to address this aim, the current paper represents a case study of the perceived long-term impact of one of the longest running multidisciplinary project-based courses in Aalto University, Finland. During nine months, the interdisciplinary and international student teams translate an open design brief provided by a industry sponsor into a functional prototype. We reached out to the PDP course alumni to find out what they considered as significant learning outcomes from the course in hindsight, as well what skills, knowledge and attitudes have they utilized in the development efforts of their current careers. Based on 33 interviews and 239 survey responses from alumni that had completed the course between 1999 and 2016, we categorized the content of responses based on the thematic similarity of the reported learning outcomes from the course and reported needs in development efforts of their current careers. Overall, the results highlight the perceived significance of socio-behavioral interpersonal skills, in which teamwork, multidisciplinarity and communication skills formed the largest categories. The second largest group was formed by attitudes, such as constant learning, having a ‘can do spirit’ and optimism, out of which the majority were brought up as a part in the development activities of the alumnis’ current careers rather than perceived learning outcomes from the course. These skills and attitudes were then followed by a better understanding of the development process and project management, with the PDP course often representing a first complete development project experience for the alumni, rather than a piecemeal phase or task of it. The usefulness of being able to handle ambiguity and defining problems was also highlighted. Interestingly, domain-specific skills were the smallest group reported in both currently utilized skills and in learning outcomes from the course. The results thus emphasize the social nature of professional design and development efforts, as well as the additional insights long-term feedback collection and reflection from former course participants can yield.