Co-designing an engineering professional practice program with students

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Conference Proceeding
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To most students the internal machinations of the university are a black box, very rarely are they permitted to see behind the curtain. While in many areas academia has started to move away from the sage-on-the-stage mentality, much of what is done still does not involve the students' voice. While they have the opportunity to provide feedback on individual subjects, the structure of students' whole degrees are still the domain of the sage. At the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) we are reviewing our professional practice program for engineering. This program sees students complete professional experience activities such as internships, reflections and professional skill development in order to give students the opportunity to develop as professionals. While the program is well received by most stakeholders, it has remained largely the same for some time. Changes in the Higher Education sector, changing student needs and learning from the COVID-19 disruption have resulted in a review looking to redevelop the program. Typically a program review would be an opaque process for students if they were aware of it at all. However, UTS sought to bring students into the program development from an early stage. Engineering and IT students from any year of study were invited to apply to join a seven-week co-design studio over their Summer semester to reimagine professional practice at UTS. They were taken through the design thinking process to imagine a future program that meets the needs of all stakeholders. Students worked through empathising with past and current students, program academics, Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) experts, industry professionals and others they identified as important stakeholders. Additionally, the students completed independent research on context topics they identified as critical to understanding the space. The results of the project were that students identified three key foci for their program: \begin{itemize} \item Supporting the development of a diverse student cohort \item Improving the feedback loop between students, industry, and the University \item Fostering connection(s) between the University and industry \end{itemize} To meet these aims the students proposed innovative solutions including a degree structure with an exit point for a lower qualification should a student not need the full qualification, and a flexi-points system to provide students access to a flexible professional development scheme tailored to each students’ needs. Throughout the studio the students independently developed both insights and ideas that had previously been raised by the University and new insights and ideas that the University had not considered. They developed their design thinking, professional practice, complex problem solving skills, and expressed an appreciation for the chance to better understand how and why the University works behind the scenes. From the perspective of subject designers, the process and engagement of students reinvigorated the academics affected by a long COVID-19 disruption that had seen diminished engagement from students. This process significantly benefited all involved through the development of skills and knowledge in students, the reinvigoration of academic staff, and the development of confirmatory and new insights and ideas for the University. This innovative practice will be broadened and continued at UTS and the co-design processes it supported as the norm rather than the exception when redeveloping course content and program structures.
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