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Group photo of students in person and on Zoom

How 300 engineering students across the world designed sustainable cities

6 July 2021

Students collaborate in new hybrid environment

Harnessing a year of learnings on remote teaching, the Faculty of Engineering successfully brought together 300 students to collaborate in a hybrid learning environment to learn about sustainable engineering practices.

The unit, titled Sustainable Design, Engineering and Management ENGG5202, gave students an insight into environmental and sustainability challenges facing Australia and the world, and how engineering addresses these challenges.

More than 300 students participated in the course, with majors including electrical, chemical, telecommunications, and civil.

Working in teams with elected Project Managers and Team Leaders, students were tasked with the design of a sustainable city. Students worked through a different sustainability topic each week before presenting their designs in the final week.

With group work a critical component of the course and approximately 75 per cent of students working remotely, course coordinator Professor PJ Cullen and course manager Dr Behdad Soltani had the challenge of engaging students and building a sense of community across teams.

The hybrid model

Each tutorial started with an overall discussion on Zoom, before breaking into subgroups for students to progress groupwork. Tutors dropped in and out of the subgroups, and students used additional tools such as the Canvas blackboard feature and WeChat.

On the surface, this model aligns with what students worldwide have become used to over the last year. However, several measures ensured high levels of student participation and collaboration.

Tutors recorded videos for students to watch before each tutorial, expanding on what was covered in the lectures and what to expect in the upcoming tutorial. This meant all students were prepared and ready to engage in discussion. 

University lecture to students on campus and studying remotely

All students were asked to switch their cameras on to build relationships and increase engagement

“We wanted to make sure that every single student receives support and that no one gets missed”, said Course Manager Dr Behdad Soltani.

“Generally in a big class you can end up not knowing who else is in the class, especially over Zoom. We had a face-to-face connection with everyone – students were asked to turn their cameras on, and we knew them and they knew us.”

Careful consideration went into the group allocations, ensuring that a diverse range of disciplines and backgrounds were represented and that at least one student in each group was studying on campus.

Though studying remotely, Project Manager of the green team David (Yunxiang) Deng successfully managed a group of 50 by working closely with the other Project Manager in the team, Xinyang (Yang) Pei, who was based on campus.

"Yang and I based our leadership approach on three key characteristics”, said Deng. “We maintained frequent communication with multiple calls each week, we empathised with each other and with the students, and we utilised our different personalities to get the most out of the group”.

Skills beyond the classroom

The assessment structure also allowed students to gain skills outside of the sustainability topics, with a focus on groupwork and communication.

Yellow team Project Manager Nikolaos Varnas described it as a unique course and enjoyed the opportunity to take on a leadership role.

“This course had a completely different structure from all other courses I have studied at university, and gave us a real perspective of how large firms' hierarchy works”, said Varnas.

I recommend that future students take the chance to be either a project manager or a leader, because this is an amazing opportunity to discover leadership skills in an environment where mistakes are welcome.
Nikolaos Varnas

Ruizhe Zhao, Project Manager of the white team, also found the support provided by tutor Chiara Fois enabled him to make the most out of the course and gain skills and knowledge that exceeded the course content.

“Our tutor provided valuable advice to not only understand the content of study, but also in team management to support the groups – we have continued mentorship since the course finished.”

The final submissions

The final presentations delivered at the end of the course demonstrated the wide range of experience and knowledge the students had brought to the course, presenting the students’ visions of practical cities designed to face some of the world’s pressing environmental challenges. 

Students presenting in person and over Zoom

Students attended the final presentations both in person and through Zoom

Course coordinator Professor PJ Cullen said the final presentations were a result of significant planning and organisation.

“Organisation was a critical component of getting this course to work, both for us and the students. The 2021 cohort met this challenge with some inspiring proposals that included working with the city’s natural landscape and initiatives such as diverting unsorted waste into gasification plants.”