Facilitating the learning of need finding and problem formulation during cooperative work terms through remote, virtual, clinical instruction

Grant recipients and project team: 

Oscar Nespoli, Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering

Ada Hurst, Department of Management Sciences

(Project timeline: September 2017 - August 2018)


The opportunity to teach, learn and assess need finding and problem formulation, remains largely unavailable for students to learn and for instructors to teach and assess during academic terms.  The context of professional engineering practice is required in order to learn these important design skills.  Fortunately, this context is available to students in the clinical dimension of our programs – during their cooperative work terms. 

This project aims to examine how these skills can be taught and assessed while students are immersed in professional engineering practice contexts during their coop terms, and while the clinical instructors teach them remotely.  Based on the framework provided by Schon’s theory of reflective practice and through analysis of student reflections, need finding and problem formulation deliverables, and learning sessions, we will investigate how virtual clinical instruction can facilitate the deep learning of the reflective practice of need finding and problem formulation skills.

Research Questions

1) To what extent can need finding and problem formulation be taught, learned and assessed during a cooperative work term?

2) How can clinical instruction, through the application of Schön’s theory of reflective practice, facilitate this?


Our work to date has only begun to address these important questions. We published a paper at DESIGN2018 that confirmed the feasibility of the new programming with our first pilot with Bata Innovation Labs (BIL).  Students reported, through survey and focus group, that they learned more deeply than in a classroom environment because they were able to be in constant engagement with the problems they were trying to solve.  They viewed the learning sessions very positively. All three students provided very positive feedback on the experience of learning about design while immersed in the context of a real problem. They stated that compared to their classmates who were only learning about these concepts while on the academic term, they were having a much better learning experience in the course and were better prepared to tackle their design project. Receiving that instruction while immersed in the problem context, “stuck so much better”. One of the students further expanded on this point in the focus group discussion: “I think you can learn more while you are in the “co-op environment” versus a “class environment”. During the co-op term you can constantly and actively apply the learned concepts and techniques because the opportunities are right in front of you. While if you are learning these concepts in a class environment, you are no longer directly engaged with the problem, so I don’t think the learning experience is as effective.”

Students, as novice professionals, generally underestimate the importance and impact of non-technical elements of an engineering activity, such as communication, project/risk management, and cultural aspects. It is likely that they expected more technical focus and less non-technical focus, however, they faced a truly authentic professional practice situation – messy indeterminant situations, that forced them to engage fully with an authentic practice environment, unshielded from management, and not in an academic, science-based environment.

We underestimated the 3rd “i” in iCapstone – International, referring to the cultural contexts that design is performed in.  It came through as a constant during each learning session.  This is an area of future investigation, worthy of funding, in line with our institutional goal of internationalization.


Project Reference List (PDF)

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