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New and Untraditional 3E Class: A Bold Step


Students from TJU Emerging Engineering Education “Future Intelligent Machine and System Planform” are studying in the “smart classroom”

The first class in TJU turned out to be an unexpected challenge for freshman Yan Chang and her 139 fellow students. They are the first batch of students from the initial talent cultivation platform for Emerging Engineering Education (3E), and “future intelligent machine and system”, at TJU and in China.

Different from the conventional classes, Yan’s first class is a mixture of excitement and confusion with a unique project named “automated guided vehicle”, along with a long list of books in Chinese and English given by the teacher without any long speeches or step-by-step explanation. The vehicle is similar to the smart delivery vehicles used in smart warehouses in several logistic companies nowadays. Yan, together with her classmates, needs to learn how to manipulate the “little vehicle” both theoretically and practically to make it move and deliver packages according to their instructions.

This class is “design and construction”, one of the four brand new classes set up by the “Future Intelligent Machine and System” platform. TJU has spent half a year gathering the strength from the Schools of Mechanical Engineering, Microelectronics, Mathematics, Precision Instrument and Optoelectronics Engineering, Electrical and Information Engineering, the College of Intelligence and Computing, Qiushi Honors College and Xuanhuai School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and elaborating an entirely new set of courses and a teaching system to search for a cross-border integrated multi-disciplinary engineering education system.

Born to catch up with the latest technologies, industries and economy, 3E was too new to have a specific definition at the inception. Therefore, there was not a unified standard for how the classes should be given under 3E.

However, Tianjin University took a bold step. During the launch of the 3E program by TJU in April this year, a series of open talent training platforms with multi-disciplines and multi-participation were designed. In addition to the future intelligent machine and system platform, there are also the future health and medical platform, the future intelligent chemical industry and green energy platform as well as the future built environment and architecture.

With regards to the “Future Intelligent Machine and System” platform, in order to help students better understand the class, 15 teachers from different disciplines stepped onto the stages during the orientation meeting to their share views.

“More than 10 years ago, we had students take a tape recorder apart and reassembled it. They learn the working of each piece, and created ideas for improvement. Today’s mobile phones are so complex that it’s much harder to understand what function of every unit when taken apart. Nevertheless, I hope you can design and build smarter and more innovative products in the future.” Gu Peihua, Director of TJU Emerging Engineering Education Center and Professor of the School of Mechanical Engineering, told the students, while holding a phone in his raised.

One of the characteristics of this class is that the course adopts a completely different way from traditional teaching and learning. Teaching, practice and discussion each account for one third of the class hours. At the beginning of the course, 140 students will be divided into 24 groups and the project’s “task statement” will be given to each student and they will have to cooperate with each other throughout the entire semester. Finally, each group has to come up with a qualified “automated guided vehicle” in order to obtain a final score.

This revolutionary class challenges both the students and the teachers. Although all 140 young students are rigorously selected, their study life in the first two months still tastes bitter. Each day they have to adapt to their school life, including learning to overcome the agony of absorbing various kinds of knowledge by themselves. Additionally, they have to stand on the stage and report to everyone in the class.

Kang Rongjie, Associate Professor from the School of Mechanical Engineering said that theory goes first before practice in conventional teaching. Now, they go hand in hand. “The theory you have learned can be used immediately into your practice, and you have to find the theory by continuous learning if you want to achieve the practice.”

Originally, teachers showed their concern on whether the students would adapt to the learning pace for the current course, which is equivalent to the contents of the previous 4 or 5 courses. Therefore, the teacher would give the students the key points of the next lesson in class and give proper guidance to some key problems. Taking the vehicle project as an example, the instructor would communicate to the students the design methods of some routes and sensors, for example, to guide the car forward with sensitization.

However, the students’ performance and plasticity astonished the teachers. Beyond the teacher’s imagination, a student proposed a better solution in the next class, which was that the car can be pulled by visual recognition with the camera, and gave some concrete ideas to realize. “This is definitely a motivation for every teacher,” said Kang.

Kang also shared his discovery during the regular Tuesday “collective lesson preparation” that many students learn by themselves after class, and they will gather around to ask questions during the break, which is “hardly seen in the previous class”. The reason, according to Kang, is that the new class gives students a “goal” to know what they want to learn and what they need to learn.

Yan Chang also “found herself” in the new class. In group study, she was responsible for demand analysis, questionnaire design and customer demand investigation. Thus, she found relevant chapters inProduct Design and Developmentin the book list for self-study and held weekly group meetings to discuss the progress.

In fact, in order to perfect this specific project, academicians and professors have held several meetings to select a suitable project that can not only meet the needs of social and economic development, but also integrate multidisciplinary knowledge and should be operable within the students’ ability.

Kang Rongjie admitted that the current teaching system with outdated materials, training programs and teachers’ knowledge system in universities has been used for 30 or 40 years. “We can no longer train young people with the old things,” he said.

“Project System” teaching is also a feature of 3E. It is designed to cultivate outstanding engineering innovators and leaders in industry, the world and the future.

Sun Tao, Associate Dean of the School of Mechanical Engineering thought that to break the rigid teaching model of “teaching their own classes and focusing on exams”, teachers must reorganize the knowledge points, redesign courses and prepare lessons according to project requirements, constantly update their knowledge reserves, and be ready to deal with all kinds of questions raised by students at any time.

“Some teachers, who are accustomed to the existing teaching methods or even have taught one course for decades, may feel unadaptable to the new pattern. However, that’s what emerging engineering education requires,” Sun said, “when teachers give a project to students, they have to do it on their own at first.” Sun Tao has estimated that students in the Emerging Engineering Education system need to complete at least 20 projects in 4 years.

It was introduced that the platforms will fully respects the students’ interest, provides them with more autonomous learning space and a freer professional choice in the future. They can select one from a number of disciplines such as intelligent manufacturing, artificial intelligence, automation, electronic science and technology as a major degree and may simultaneously select another discipline as a secondary degree or a micro-degree.

The platforms also implement the undergraduate-graduate student run-through cultivation. According to the knowledge of the project, the undergraduate student can take the postgraduate course and have the opportunity to enter the postgraduate laboratory to participate in the scientific research project together with the graduate student. The excellent students can select the TJU Training Program for Excellence and apply for a continuous academic project which involves undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral study.

In Tianjin International Engineering Institute at TJU, different from the conventional teaching mode, the institute has made in-depth exploration and attempts on postgraduate education, and permeated the 3E concept model into the whole process of education. The unique “three-stage practice” created by the institute combines the theoretical knowledge learned in class with the practical projects of enterprises.

“Through the practice, we can grasp the cutting-edge trends of our major in time and accurately find the loopholes of the knowledge learned under the guidance of enterprise tutors,” said Pan Ting, a junior student from Smart Architecture of the institute.

Pan also expressed her surprise at the “Architectural Drawing” class. “We usually work together in groups to complete a project. According to the research frontier of the project, we consult a lot of materials and learn new software tools so that we can finish the task more scientifically. The whole process fully exercises our innovation practice, unity and cooperation ability. There are a lot of more ‘special’ courses like this in the institute. Only by breaking down traditional major barriers and crossing the bounds can our future be limitless.”

“The world is changing so fast and many industries are being subverted. Students have to adapt to a changing future.” According to Li Jiajun, party secretary of TJU, this is the core of higher education reform.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education of China initiated the development of Emerging Engineering Education, and Tianjin University released TJU Action Plan for the Construction of Emerging Engineering Education, in which the exploration of a new paradigm for the engineering education was put forward. TJU Action together with the Fudan Consensus and Beijing Guideline opened up a new path to the engineering education reform.

By: Deng Xiaoxuan

Editors: Harlan Haverback, Sun Xiaofang