How Interdisciplinary projects promote students’ learning and cooperation

At the Bachelor in Business Information Systems of the School of Management and Technology at Politécnico do Porto, the curricula of some courses is organized to promote the development of interdisciplinary projects. The main goals of these projects are:

  • the promotion of university-industry cooperation;
  • the development of soft skills by the students while performing a more holistic approach to problem-solving;
  • assessment of learning through real problem-solving instead of classic mock problems.

The Bachelor promotes cooperation with local industrial and technological companies and aims to solve real problems they´re facing and which require a set of different knowledge and expertise. The approach adopted is to identify the bachelor courses that might contribute to the solution and the problem-solving process is used to assess student learning. To this end, the responsible lecturer for each course defines specific goals for the students to reach and evaluates them based on the solutions they present.


More Information

Impact

What was the challenge intended to be addressed? Why? What did work well? What did not work well? What have been the main achievements? How did you evaluate its success? What has been the change brought by this good practice?

The main challenge addressed is to solve real industrial problems - that might be of a technological or a management nature - under different perspectives. Any industrial problem rarely requires a single-discipline approach. It is necessary to identify the process, the requirements, the expected results, the costs, and the potential solutions. The challenge for students is to solve one problem across different courses and they are evaluated in all of them for their contributions. This approach was adopted in this bachelor to create a problem-solving environment as closer as possible to those that students will face in the labour market.
The result is normally a win-win game: The students have the chance to solve real problems facing the constraints that normally exist in the market, and the partners (firms) have a different input for the problems they want to solve. The main problem arises from the industrial side. It is still difficult to get entrepreneurs sharing part of their businesses or internal organization with students.
Success is evaluated by the implementation of the results explored by the students. This does not necessarily mean that the companies need to adopt the proposed solutions. Sometimes the discussion generates ideas that students present in other challenges and contests and, some other times, students are offered jobs in the companies. These outputs are also considered successful.

Success Factors

What are the enabling conditions (e.g. institutional, economic, social/cultural, regulatory) that needed to be in place or played a facilitating role for the good practice to be successful?

Good cooperation between the Professional Higher Education Institution (PHEI) and World of Work (WoW) is necessary. In this case, ESTG-IPP is located nearby an industrial region which facilitates this relationship of proximity. Nevertheless, it is easier to cooperate with partners from the technological than the industrial sector: The lack of workforce in the field of information technology leads companies to embrace the opportunity to get to know the students – their potential future employees - through these projects. On the other hand, the industrial sector is still, culturally, innovation and risk averse and more focused on the short-term goals of their daily production. This organizational culture makes it harder for ESTG-IPP to reach this sector. However, the number of industrial companies cooperating in these projects is increasing.

Constraints

What are the challenges, barriers or limiting factors encountered? How have they been addressed?

The main barrier, as previously identified is the still low level of openness from the industrial sector. While technological partners face the time spent with students as an investment to promote students (and future employees) knowledge, the industrial sector is mostly focused on the short-run and still somehow averse to cooperate with ESTG-IPP. In order to overcome this barrier, some lecturers are using their personal network, the technological partners are inviting some of their industrial partners to cooperate, and the Entrepreneur Support Office of ESTG-IPP is offering some valuable services to the industry to tease their curiosity.

Feasibility & Sustainability

What are the elements that need to be put into place for the good practice to be sustainable (institutionally, socially, economically, etc.)? If applicable, indicate the total costs incurred for the implementation of the practice. What are the benefits compared to total costs?

These projects do not have any financial support. The costs are mostly related to time consumption (in order to find interesting problems for students, and then the time to support students on the problem-solving activities). This learning methodology requires a closer support from lecturers that sometimes is difficult to manage. These projects are considered regular classes and credited as such. This means that just a few can be performed during the year, normally one project for the second year and another for the third year of the bachelor.

Replicability & Upscaling

What are the possibilities of extending the good practice more widely? What are the conditions that need to be in place for the good practice to be successfully replicated in a similar context? What are the steps that should be taken/respected to ensure that the good practice is replicated / up-scaled, but adapted to the new context?

The conditions to extend this practice are:
1) A continuous effort from the school in order to change the entrepreneurs’ mind-set so that they can see this cooperation as an opportunity to develop their businesses.
2) The course contents must be adapted in order to address relevant problems. This requires some time to identify an interesting problem for a group of courses; time to prepare the theoretical concepts; time to prepare the project to meet the course objectives; and time to present the project to the students.
3) The school recognition of these projects as different from regular classes, as they are time consuming and difficult to manage together with other classes, research activities and administrative tasks.

Lessons learned

What would have facilitated an earlier and/or bigger impact? What are the key features that should be kept in mind if this would have to be implemented again? What would you do differently if you could go back in time? What could have been done better?

Although, overall, the results have been promising, it would be interesting to find adequate problems to present to the first year students and then add new problems as students are moving forward in their studies.
Something to improve are the results delivered to the companies. In some cases, the project gets cold after the course evaluation as although lecturers provide students with feedback and improvement suggestions sometimes they don’t proceed with the project. This is because once they move on to other courses which contents are unrelated to the projects, they focus on new assignments and leave the projects without follow-up.

Context

Please provide some information about the context and initial situation that can help in fully understanding the action (e.g. information about the national system, applying regulations, etc.)

This approach to the curricula was planned when the bachelor was first implemented, 4 years ago. The Bachelor promotes cooperation with local industrial and technological companies and aims to solve real problems they´re facing and which require a set of different knowledge and expertise.
Sometimes it is difficult to manage both the companies and ESTG-IPP requirements: In the World of Work the requirements are fast-changing for market reasons while the academic world is bound to more static rules for legal reasons, which do not allow a fully commitment with the industrial requirements. More often than not, the time frame of the study programmes implies adjustments in the problems offered to the students, so the course objectives can be achieved.