Project-Based Learning and employer engagement in University Technical Colleges offer lessons for schools

Research into Project-based learning (PBL), involving long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with employers shows profound benefits for students says a report published today by the education charity The Edge Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering. 

The Evaluation of University Technical Colleges report, produced by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), evaluated PBL and employer engagement in two phases. In this second phase of its research, three leading University Technical Colleges (UTCs) in Liverpool, Reading and Aston were examined in depth to explore the benefits of embedding these concepts in the curriculum and gaining strong and committed employer engagement over a sustained time period. 

Project-based learning is a key focus for UTCs and demonstrates a different way of learning, often via industry-relevant projects developed in collaboration with local employers, ensuring that students develop skills that can help them access pathways into employment.

The report highlighted that PBL, which requires students to work to briefs and deadlines and use skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, appears to enhance their academic learning in subjects like English or history as well as technical subjects.  Students interviewed also felt that attending the UTC had benefitted their confidence, motivation and engagement as the classroom-based and project-based learning was relevant to real world work situations.  Local employers also valued the talent pipeline generated by working with local schools.

The report highlights ways in which schools can make the most of PBL. These include: 

  1. Schools should actively contact businesses, asking how the school can support and help them become involved in curriculum design and delivery, thereby supporting employers’ recruitment needs in the future;
  2. Demonstrate to teachers the benefits of employer input into PBL and ensure teachers have the tools, skills and resources to work with employers.
  3. Demonstrate how employers can play an integral part in developing and delivering PBL and, at the same time, reap rewards for their business;
  4. Flexibility around timetabling so students can access a full day of PBL rather than sessions being spread across the week;
  5. Employ key staff with industry backgrounds and connections to enhance relationships between business and schools;
  6. Involve employers early on in any project and support them so that they know exactly what their contribution will be and when and reassure them that the school will do as much as possible to facilitate their contribution;
  7. Ensure students have a full understanding of PBL and how it enables them to gain skills and knowledge that may help them ‘stand out’ in the future.

Phase one of the research, published in December 2017, showcased the range of approaches and employer awareness that UTCs were developing and highlighted findings that UTC staff and partners felt UTC students were being better prepared for the world of work.

The Edge Foundation Chief Executive, Alice Barnard, commented:

“This report from NFER draws out good practice from institutions that are focusing on work readiness. It identifies the common threads that make them successful in this area: developing links with industry; managing and nurturing the relationship with businesses; building this into the curriculum. Students are clearly benefitting from this experience and insight. There is much for all schools to learn from this approach.”

Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Engineering and Education, Royal Academy of Engineering, said: 

“University Technical Colleges put engineering on the map early on in the education system and provide students with meaningful connections with industry. This report shows how, when done well, UTCs can play a valuable role in technical education provision. They are challenged by a lack of an established place in the education landscape and need more support to spread this best practice.”

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