Educating Engineers: The Power of Reflection

It was in her previous life as manager of Engineering Co-op and Career Services that Lynn Stewart first understood the value of reflection in engineering education.

“We could see that when co-op students took a step back and really thought about their experiences and what they were doing, there was a significant impact on their career development and professional growth. If you look at the models of experiential learning, one of the key points is reflection. And it’s been my experience that where learning actually occurs is during that reflection phase.”

When the notion of the Learning Portfolio, an online tool that helps students plan, record and reflect on their learning experiences, emerged from the Student Experience Task Force, Stewart, now director of outreach and community engagement in McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering, immediately saw the potential benefits for students.

Stewart applied for and received a Forward with Integrity grant to look at ways of integrating the Learning Portfolio into engineering education at McMaster.

“The project was about how to incorporate reflection using the Learning Portfolio as a platform and structure it so it becomes a very logical, reasonable, desirable part of engineering education,” says Stewart.  “We wanted to provide faculty members with a tool that would give students a structured and supported way to enhance the formal pieces of their education, but also help them become more informal and lifelong learners.”

Lynn Stewart (right) and summer student, Erin Middaugh talk about the findings from Stewart’s FWI project “Validating Reflection in Engineering” at a poster session in August.

Lynn Stewart (right) and summer student, Erin Middaugh talk about the findings from Stewart’s FWI project “Validating Reflection in Engineering” at a poster session in August.

Stewart used the FWI grant to hire summer student, Erin Middaugh, and together, they began exploring practical and, sometimes unexpected, ways engineering students could use the portfolio to enhance their learning.

“If you go to a work site, engineers are always walking around with notebooks that they use to record their observations.  When something goes wrong, and it inevitably does, so much of an engineer’s job is fixing things and problem-solving. They’ll often find the clues in their documentation,” says Stewart. “So a learning portfolio,  a reflection on what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, is really good practice for that exceptionally important engineering discipline of documentation, one of the core attributes that they will have to bring as a professional.”

They also found that the Learning Portfolio can help students lay the groundwork for future employment.

“Whether it’s a co-op position, a summer job, or whether you’re looking for full-time employment,” says Stewart.  “Reflection will help you to be a much better prepared applicant which will make you a much more competitive applicant.  This should be part of everybody’s toolkit if you’re going to be successful in a competitive job search.”

Middaugh agrees.  "One of the reasons I created a portfolio is so that I can documents my experiences and put them in a central spot. When I’m applying for jobs this fall, I can refer to my portfolio and include that information in my resume and cover letter so I’m not stuck thinking about what I’ve done and the skills that I have, I already have those skills documented.”

This fall, a number of engineering instructors are piloting the portfolio in their classes.  Stewart says she and the Learning Portfolio Working Group are also looking for ways to implement the portfolio in engineering communications and professionalism courses at the second year level, as well as asking all co-op students to use the portfolio to document their experiential learning.

Stewart recognizes that the engineering curriculum is already packed and this means that the portfolio needs to be implemented strategically.

“We’re not saying that everybody has to do it.  We’re going to be looking very closely at these pilots, how they work out, what the benefits are, what the challenges were and how we can do it better. We’re thinking very carefully about this. We only want to use it where it makes sense. ”

Middaugh is part of team of engineering student ambassadors that will be making presentations to to a number of classes this fall.  She recommends that engineering students use the portfolio regardless of whether they are asked to create one as part of a course.

“It gives students a way that they can document and look back after a busy semester and say ‘ok, what did I really learn? How did my group projects go? What kind of things would I do better next semester?’ To constantly strive to get to the next level and be the best student you can be.”

Ishwar Puri, Dean of Engineering, says the Learning Portfolio can help students take charge of their education as life-long and self-directed learners.

"Students can define their academic and career aspirations within their Learning Portfolios and seek out opportunities to further develop their skills and capabilities as engineers, entrepreneurs and leaders. We encourage our students to be reflective about the translation of their knowledge, research and experiences so that they can become self-aware, engaged citizens who will transform the world."