Promoting independent learning in undergraduate laboratory programmes : running sessions without GTA demonstrators

Heslop, Mark and Airdrie, Ian and Jones, Christopher and Kirkwood, Liam and Gemmell, Cameron; (2022) Promoting independent learning in undergraduate laboratory programmes : running sessions without GTA demonstrators. In: Proceedings of the 8th International Symposium for Engineering Education. University of Strathclyde, GBR. ISBN 9781914241208

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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced engineering departments to think carefully about practical/laboratory programmes, which are required for accreditation with professional bodies. Such programmes are normally run with PhD demonstrators (or GTAs) to guide groups through their experiments. At the University of Strathclyde (CPE), we have taken a contrary approach by running programmes with just one academic member of staff (MJH) and two technicians. In addition, a video and standard operating procedure (SOP) are supplied beforehand to allow adequate preparation. We also provide extensive post-experiment support in the form of experiment forums (where results can be shared) and Zoom sessions – this gives the opportunity to ask questions. Our philosophy is that practical programmes are very much a partnership in learning between students, academic and technical staff - we all learn from each other. Certainly, one of the outcomes has been that experiments take longer to complete – an indication that groups are working more slowly and (perhaps) deliberately? In addition, the saving in demonstration costs has been significant. Survey comments would suggest that being able to work through the experiments independently is appreciated, but with support on hand should they run into difficulties - another type of "safe space". Importantly, it is helpful to see processed results on the forums, and the questions would suggest an impressive understanding of their experiments. We feel this programme functionality gives an improved learning experience over the traditional "carry out the experiment then submit report" format - a silver lining to the Covid-19 cloud.