The Reality of Project-Based Learning
March 13, 2018
Audrey Grayson
Industrial engineering student Amanda Herrera
Industrial engineering student Amanda Herrera

Industrial engineering professor Randal Sitton begins his "Engineering Systems Design" class with the same introduction each year: "This is the hardest class you're ever going to take."

It's no small claim. Most of the undergraduate students in Sitton's class are seniors, some mere months away from graduation. All have made it through the rigorous coursework, labs and exams leading up to this class. If you can call it a class.

"In the senior design course, the project is the class," Sitton says.

At the UH Cullen College of Engineering, all undergraduates take a senior design course, also called a capstone design course, in their final year of school, applying all of the engineering knowledge and skills they've learned so far to solve a real-world problem.

In architecture a capstone is affixed to the top of an edifice, representing a crowning achievement. Like its namesake, Sitton's class represents the final academic triumph for these students. 

"The senior design course is a bridge between academia and the real world," Sitton explains.

Down to business

During the first week of class, Sitton randomly creates student teams and presents each group with their real-world challenge. "All of the projects are sponsored by companies who come to us with a specific problem they're facing in the industry and ask if we can find a solution to it," says Sitton.

Last spring leading pipe manufacturer Tenaris sponsored a student team to increase safety while reducing the time it takes to conduct collapse testing at TenarisBayCity in Bay City, Texas. Trafficware, a company specializing in the manufacture and design of traffic management hardware and software, sponsored a project that aimed to increase efficiency and improve storage space by redesigning the company's stockroom.

Once the projects are assigned, Sitton steps back from his traditional role as a professor. There are no weekly lectures or chalkboard problem-solving. Instead, students file weekly status reports with Sitton, whose role is more project facilitator than teacher.

There is no hand-holding, no long-winded discussions about what to do next, how to do it or who to ask for help along the way. In Sitton's words, there's only one thing for the students to do next: "They have to get creative."

"There's no silver bullet in the real world. Sometimes there are clear answers, and sometimes there's not. Sometimes not even the problem itself is clear or well-defined," Sitton adds.

No hypotheticals

For industrial engineering student Amanda Herrera, the most difficult course she ever took at the Cullen College of Engineering was also the most rewarding. 

"Dr. Sitton was right. This was by far the hardest class I took as an undergrad," Herrera said.

Herrera was assigned to a team with fellow industrial engineering undergrads Brandon Kwan, Cindy Sanchez and Craigan Wild. The group was asked to scrutinize a rather large and ill-defined optimization problem: MD Anderson Cancer Center's operating room (OR) turnover time - that is, the time between one patient leaving the OR and the next patient entering the OR - is approximately 56 minutes.

Their task was to reduce the OR turnover time to the national average of 30 minutes.

In addition to solving a complex real-world problem in one academic semester, there were also the challenges of juggling schedules, delegating workloads, communicating effectively and managing emotions among a team of very different personalities.

"The project-based learning course taught me so much more than a traditional class. We were given a really tough real-world problem - not a hypothetical problem - that a company was facing and needed to fix," Herrera said. "We had to learn by doing and we had to come together as a team to get it done."

First things first

Before they could set to work on tackling the problem, the UH team had to start with the basics. Sitton requires each group to complete a project overview statement outlining their problem, objectives, goals, obstacles and success criteria. The project sponsors approve each team's statement before the real work begins.

Herrera's team worked with MD Anderson project facilitators and senior healthcare systems engineers Dalia Farhat and Ashley Robinson, who acted as liaisons between the UH engineering students and MD Anderson's operations executives.

"Everyone we worked with at MD Anderson treated us like legitimate contractors rather than a student team, and at first that really intimidated us," Herrera said.

Visits to MD Anderson and meetings with project facilitators were scheduled in between classes, tests, study groups, part-time jobs, families and social lives. The student team met each Tuesday and Thursday to discuss project deliverables and milestones, reporting their progress to Farhat and Robinson by email weekly.

"They had a thorough project plan and timeline, which they delivered to us without us asking them for it. They gave regular progress reports and sent their questions for each meeting ahead of time so that we had time to prepare. I was beyond impressed," Farhat said.

The students' efficiency, organization and hard work paid off by the end of the course - to the tune of $3.5 million.

Solving a multi-million dollar problem

Operating rooms are one of the most expensive components of hospital operations. Increasing efficiency and productivity in the clean-up and set-up that takes place in-between each patient can mean incredible cost-savings. But the solution is multi-faceted and complex, involving human factors, room layouts, scheduling, staffing, hospital culture and equipment organization.

"So many factors have to be taken into consideration to solve this problem," Herrera said. "MD Anderson knew there was a problem, but they didn't know where it was coming from. We had to look at their whole system to get the answers."

The team started by interviewing the entire OR staff, including doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, maintenance and cleaning personnel, to understand their roles.. Then the UH students verified the anecdotal information with video footage of the OR operations, taking notes on the processes, shift changes, staffing levels and seemingly minute details that can impact OR turnover time.

"We began to notice all of the little problems that created the big problem," Herrera said.

By standardizing clean-up and set-up processes, instituting new safety and time-saving procedures, reorganizing equipment, and changing staffing levels and schedules, the student team successfully reduced the turnover time to 30 minutes - and identified more than $3.5 million in potential cost-savings in the process.

"The [UH Engineering] team completed the project in two and a half months. That's a lot of work," Farhat said.

Try before you buy

Each senior design class culminates with the student teams presenting their solutions to the companies or individuals who sponsored their project. Herrera and her teammates presented their findings to an audience of more than 25 senior engineers at MD Anderson.

"They came up with extremely valuable solutions and the engineering team was very impressed with their presentation," Farhat said.

The UH team's recommendations are being reviewed and may be implemented at MD Anderson as early as this fall, Farhat said.

"There's a 'try before you buy' aspect to the course," Sitton says. "The students get a glimpse into what it's really like to work in a certain industry, and companies get a chance to test out potential employees."

As a result, senior design courses can lead to job and internship offers for many UH Engineering students.

That may very well be the case for Herrera, who envisions a future for herself in the healthcare field.

"I dreamed of working in healthcare before this project, and now I can't imagine working anywhere else," she said. "Working at MD Anderson would be a dream come true."

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