5.6 Examples of PjBL

Graham (2010) identified seven highly-regarded and transferable types of PjBL projects. These are:

  1. Icebreakers (where team building is more important than the product);
  2. Partnerships with local companies;
  3. Product design;
  4. Video production;
  5. Robot competitions;
  6. Artefact analysis and improvement (reverse engineering);
  7. Crime scene analysis.

I would add another:

8.  Social service projects, which might be based around a specific person with a problem, rather than a specific device (e.g. ten projects on the theme ‘make Sophie’s life better’)

Some specific project and problem topics which have been used in the past include:

  • Design, make and test a cardboard bridge to span a specified gap;
  • Design, build and fly an aircraft to carry a specified load, or fly a specified course, or stay up for a specified time;
  • Build a robot to make and deliver a mug of coffee to you from the other side of a barrier;
  • Use Lego Mindstorms (or similar kits) to control a robot to ….;
  • Build a tenth-scale building, dam or bridge (e.g. at the Constructionarium);
  • Design, build and predict the height attained by a water-powered rocket;
  • Dismantle a familiar object (e.g. power drill) and redesign to improve some aspect of performance (Mechanical dissection);
  • Re-design the control surfaces of an aircraft to improve its flight handling qualities (to be tested in a flight simulator);
  • Make a video to demonstrate …;
  • Design and make an interactive science/engineering demonstration for school pupils;
  • Design and develop an engineering ‘app’ for the iPhone or iPad;
  • Draw specified conclusions from a crime scene;
  • Develop an eco-house;
  • Design, build and race a Formula Student car;
  • Design and build a low-cost low-tech pump for drawing water from a well in Africa;
  • Improve the efficiency of a turbine;
  • Recommend to the manufacturer an improved material for a car door (or similar component);
  • Design and make a vertical wind turbine;
  • Produce an alarm to warn when the bath is full;
  • Design a new ice cream;
  • Improve ambulance trolleys to reduce the impact on the patient;
  • Make a two-wheeled balancing vehicle;
  • Design and build an instrumented small-scale rollercoaster to enable young pupils to conduct experiments on kinetic and potential energy;
  • Design a robot to detect and locate the carotid artery in the neck;
  • Ask the external community for projects: assistive technologies; developing world projects (e.g. via Engineers without Borders); human-centred projects
  • Devise and produce a game to illustrate an engineering principle.

It is worth considering one example of a PjBL project in more detail in order to draw out some of the possibilities. I will describe the ‘Foam Skyscraper’ project which was developed under NASA funding [CDIO in Aerospace Engineering Education; NASA E.2 Innovation in Aeronautics Instruction (IAII-08)] in 2008-09 and for which detailed instructions and guidance notes are available. This project can be carried out over a period of a few hours – an afternoon or a whole day. The challenge is simply to build the highest tower out of rigid foam and pencils. The recommended constraints are that the completed tower must support a 0.5l bottle of water and must be stable against being tilted about any arbitrary axis by a specified angle (e.g. 1 in 10 or 6 degrees). The details are;

  • Foam is available in one thickness (e.g. 2 inches or 50mm) and several slab sizes;
  • Fasteners (pencils sharpened at one end) may not be broken or cut;
  • Each team has a fixed budget, and must pay for:
    • The land on which the skyscraper is to be built (per unit area)
    • The foam (per slab);
    • Cutting the foam (per cut);
    • Fasteners (per pencil);
  • Each team must in sequence:
    • Establish and keep a log
    • Produce a plan and a schedule of actions;
    • Get their plans signed off by a ‘building inspector’
    • Build the tower according to their plans
    • Subject their tower to testing (i.e. tilting)
  • Materials are limited, so there is a finite number of each foam slab and a finite number of pencils.

This project thus requires teamwork, planning, design, time constraints and finance, plus a very small amount of calculation (essentially just a centre of gravity estimate). Potential variants could involve further constraints such as rule changes or material cost changes during the project. You may find (and therefore need to think about) possible team behaviours such as cornering the market in a material, arguing about the land area required, or introducing materials other than the two provided. These can lead to very interesting debates about ethics and the real world in which construction projects are carried out. Because it has low technical requirements the foam tower project is very suitable as an ‘icebreaker’ at the beginning of an undergraduate programme, or as a light-hearted activity for an awayday (for staff or students).

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

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