Multidisciplinary project modelling workplace collaboration


The divide between theory and practice adds an extra challenge for graduates joining the workforce. A course being trialled at Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) has Mechanical and Electrical engineering students modelling a ‘real world’ task for their Bachelor of Engineering Technology (BEngTech).

Developing a new course

Wintec engineering tutors Trudy Harris and Brent Phillips wanted to give their students the experience of working across disciplines on a project. They point out that when graduates actually get in to the workplace, they find that many projects require a combination of mechanical and electrical engineering expertise. Earlier this year, they came up with the concept for a new project in which students would collaborate to model a challenging ‘real world’ task.

The ‘Multidisciplinary Project to Enhance Workplace Readiness’ was developed to complement the manufacturing industry, which is important to the Waikato region. It is a compulsory project which, after a few months of hectic preparation, began in late April.

Mechanical and Electrical engineering students

Brent and Trudy designed the project for third-year Mechanical and second-year Electrical engineering students. Why the different levels? While each group brings a good set of skills to the project, the selection was a pragmatic decision – the tutors teach both these groups already and the applicable papers run concurrently.

For the Mechanical students, the project is part of a Level 7 module worth 40% of their final grade (it is done in addition to the traditional final-year project.) The Electrical students do the project as a Level 5 module, worth 14%.

The project

Students have to develop a system to autonomously assemble all the components of a game ‘The Tower of Hanoi’. The Mechanicals will design all the parts (pillars, discs, etc.), design the automated manufacturing process (including using 3D printing) and also develop a logo. The Electricals will design the control system, taking all the parts and assembling them into a product.

The students are working in groups, composed of two Mechanical and four Electrical students, with the Mechanicals (due to their experience) also acting as managers to oversee the project.  They work on their own parts of the project, with communication a key aspect for the cross-discipline collaboration to be successful. Each group has to produce an operations manual, with the Electrical and Mechanical students taking responsibility for their respective sections.

Setting up the project

Developing a new project on a tight time frame took, Trudy says, “a fair bit of effort.” They had to consider how much information to give the students – the project couldn’t be too prescribed if students were to bring their creativity to the challenge. Students haven’t been told what their game must look like; they only know what the outcome should be. Brent and Trudy also discussed what equipment the students would need, and decided to provide basic tools and equipment, “Hopefully, they will ask for more equipment if they need it.” Trudy says.

Some parts of the assessment will be the same for everyone, while others have been written to ensure they meet the learning outcomes for Mechanical or Electrical engineering students.

Running a new project obviously involves a certain number of “unknowns”, so Trudy and Brent will assess how well it goes and modify the project for next year.

Students’ progress

With the project deadline approaching, students are busy with implementing their designs and fine-tuning their control systems. Brent and Trudy note that a natural, iterative design process has been evident as the teams encounter challenges with their original plans and then create solutions for these problems. A dedicated workspace has been an essential part of the success of this project; having the project hardware readily available has allowed students to more easily organise themselves. Occasionally there hasn’t been ready access to tools or new parts which has held up progress, so this is an area the tutors will improve on next time the project runs.

Student feedback

The students were surveyed at the beginning and mid-point of the project. The results showed that 77% were generally confident in their team’s ability to meet the challenge. Even more (87%) were confident in their personal ability to contribute to their team. One student identified a benefit of the project as a “feeling of working out in the industry, face to face with your co-workers (classmates) and bosses (teachers)”.

During the project, some of the difficulties included the logistics for students coordinating and communicating with a team where there are varying schedules and other assessment pressures. Students reported that workload has been distributed according to the motivation and capabilities of team members, in order to maintain progress towards project milestones.

Future plans

Trudy and Brent say their students’ achievements and positive feedback have encouraged them to replicate the project with future classes and explore other opportunities for collaboration with Wintec colleagues and classes. Both agree that they would definitely recommend this type of challenge for others wanting to bring more of the real world of engineering into the classroom.

Many thanks to Trudy and Brent for their time and advice. If you have any questions, get in touch at

June 2015