Teaching undergraduate engineering students about project management

going off the beaten track

Mario Bourgault
École Polytechnique, Montreal, Canada

Benoit Robert
École Polytechnique, Montreal, Canada

Gabriel Yan
École Polytechnique, Montreal, Canada

As more global organizations use project management to realize projects and accomplish business objectives so too are more educational institutions developing project management training programs. From executive seminars to intensive master’s degrees, these programs are offering advanced project management knowledge and skills to those who need such training. Aiding in this proliferation is the emergence of new technologies that educational institutions can use to offer these programs through distance learning opportunities. Many universities now offer this kind of product (Rad, 2000).

Although numerous institutions currently offer an abundant and diversified selection of training programs for both practitioners and scholars, these institutions lack such programs for undergraduate students, programs that could introduce undergraduates to project management concepts and help them acquire practical experience in the field. Research shows that project management regularly ranks high on the list of those essential non-technical skills that experienced practitioners say new engineering graduates need. Tong (2003) surveyed more than 300 respondents from various industrial segments and found that the six nontechnical skills—from a list of 22—that employers value most include interpersonal communication, project planning/scheduling, people management, problem solving, team management, and cost control. While Tong agrees that obtaining knowledge of these non-technical skills would require non-traditional teaching methods, he urges universities to review, study, and reassess their curricula in order to provide future engineers with the professional skills they need to succeed.

Currently, there are very few studies examining the state of project management teaching at the undergraduate level. The few that do exist tend to present a rather uninspiring portrait of the situation. In areas such as information systems programs, for example, Reif and Mitri (2005) reported—based on information obtained from a survey—that project management training is not widely available. Du, Johnson, and Keil (2004) support this claim, arguing that the current practices used in project management instruction are too narrowly focused and fail to adequately balance between the hard and the soft skills needed to succeed in the field. Despite the numerous reports on the difficulty of successfully carrying out information systems (IS) projects—most notably by the Standish Group (2004), Du et al. observed that “the practice of project management was well established when IS curricula were first developed, but these principles have not yet been fully incorporated into the educational programs that instruct emerging IS practitioners” (p. 186). This situation is seemingly not restricted to only academic programs in IS or information technology (IT). Christodoulou (2004) argues that institutions must redesign their project management academic curricula so as to effectively train the next generation of engineers, so that the engineers of tomorrow can “successfully integrate traditional engineering knowledge with fundamental knowledge of information technology, management, and financial principles” (p. 90).

Non-technical disciplines may be inherently challenging to teach within engineering programs. Nevertheless, a number of researchers and professors continue to experiment and innovate in this regard. Since project management is closely associated with engineering careers, the discipline may, in fact, represent the ideal platform for experimenting with a multidisciplinary training approach, one that many observers say is needed in modern engineering education (ABET, 2006).

In this paper, we examine one Canadian Engineering School’s recent efforts to renew its project management training program for undergraduate engineering students. For several years, the examined program was a standard, in-class course. But the university’s new educational strategy aims at gradually integrating project management processes into the regular technical processes that students need to implement while executing four-year-long capstone projects. By stretching-out project management training, the university expects that its program will yield interesting results, particularly because the students will have the opportunity to gradually and directly apply learned concepts and tools while working on real projects, as opposed to only studying such concepts and tools theoretically.

We have organized the paper as follows. In section two, we review some of the current teaching methods used to prepare young engineering professionals in project management for careers in industry and in academia. In the third section, we discuss the academic context in which one engineering school—École Polytechnique (Montreal, Canada)—is developing and applying an undergraduate training strategy. And in section four, the last section, we identify the advantages of this new teaching approach as well as the challenges that project management educators will need to address in the coming years.

Project Management Education: Achievements and Challenges

When Gaddis (1959) described his vision of project managers almost half a century ago, very few people would have imagined that the discipline would develop as far as it has. Over the years, project management has become a discipline of its own and has generated a great demand for a variety of education programs.

Much of this demand comes from industry, where numerous professionals attain the rank of project manager accidentally, most after they have worked for a few years in their field as specialists. This is because executives most often ask their experts to lead a project team and eventually, to lead projects. In their former positions as experts, these accidental project managers were often asked to make specific, precise, and timely contributions. Now, as the project manager, they need to be open to compromise, to adopt an overall view of the problem, and to maneuver through an intricate network of informal influences and politics (Pinto, 2000). For most people, such a transformation of their role and functions requires the acquisition of new competencies because they are not sufficiently prepared to tackle the demands of their new position. Thus emerged the need for education programs in project management. In response to this need, hundreds of professional services companies have developed project management training programs, albeit individualized and different. From fully online and interactive solutions to programs tailored to fit a specific company’s requirements, project management education institutions offer project managers a wide variety of services—at an equally wide range of cost (Warshauer, 2004). Over the past few years, the diversity of these programs has reached unmatched levels. For example, the Project Management Institute (PMI) (2005) now recognizes more than 700 registered education providers. And demand is not limited to North America and Europe: Pappas (2005) reports that project management education institutions are continuously and rapidly flourishing throughout the world, particularly in Brazil, Mexico, and China.

Augmenting the field’s global expansion are the universities that are playing a major role in providing project management education. All around the world, universities are offering various types of project management training, from diploma-delivering graduate programs (e.g., Master’s degrees) to executive programs. Most often, these programs are taught by members of a university’s engineering, business, or architecture and design faculty.

One challenge that these university programs face, as compared to other education providers in this discipline, is that in many cases, especially at the undergraduate level, students have either very little actual field experience or—most often—none at all. This lack has a major impact on the way instructors teach courses on project management. Unlike standard engineering courses, where students often have the opportunity to learn concepts hands-on through laboratory assignments, courses in project management—and other business-related topics—may lack the necessary conditions to make the teaching as authentic as it should be, so that graduates are prepared to work on projects.

For to broaden the scope of undergraduate engineering education (Witt et al., 2002) and develop student competencies in other disciplines such as humanities and management, universities must challenge the traditional pedagogical model, an approach to educating students which is still predominant in many institutions.

A Short Review of Project Management Education Methods

Project management education is largely a feature of university curricula that are closely connected with careers in business or industry. Students in engineering, computer sciences, commerce, and related disciplines usually do have access to basic training in project management.

While project management education has certainly evolved since Cook and Granger (1976) conducted their survey of American colleges and universities three decades ago, many of their observations remain relevant. For example, they observed that engineering departments were most likely to teach courses totally devoted to project management, whereas business administration departments tended to include project management as a topic within other related courses. Project management instruction was also found to target mainly upper-level undergraduate students and first-year graduate students. Not surprisingly, teaching in the 1970s, Cook and Granger noted, principally focused on the hard skills of project planning and control techniques and less upon the soft skills of human relations and communications skills.

Although this classic view of what project management entails is still common, one can observe, by studying the education programs offering project management courses, a variety of other methods that institutions are now using to authenticate their training, albeit in pedagogical terms (see Figure 1). The case study method, developed by the Harvard Business School, is one affordable way of helping students understand the complexity of managing projects and approach project matters from a more integrated perspective. Despite its advantages, however, this method remains relatively static because data is given a priori and does not usually evolve over time, unless educators feed in other information along the way, information that was not provided at the beginning.

Other methods, such as simulations, can generate a more dynamic learning context. Computer-based simulations, which are commonly used in software and IT-related learning environments, can facilitate a more dynamic interaction between learners and the object of learning. The literature reports on previous experiences in using computer simulations. For example, Pfahl, Laitenberger, Ruhe, Dorsch, and Krivobokova (2004) developed a computer-based training (CBT) module for student education in software project management. These researchers used CBT in a role-play setting and found that this tool significantly improved the students’ knowledge of typical software project behavior patterns. Brown (2000), however, found these simulations limited because these experiences focused on using a restricted set of variables that cannot entirely reflect reality, such as contact with the client.

Various methods used for teaching project management

Figure 1: Various methods used for teaching project management

Another type of simulation is scenario-based, role-play situations. It focuses on participant interactions throughout the project. Bourgault and Lagacé (2002) experimented with this approach in order to effectively link behavior with the recognized tools and methods in the project management field. In their case, they used a one-day seminar: They assigned roles and responsibilities to the students who, in return, were required to interact with each other as if they working within a real organization. Bourgault and Lagacé found that this kind of simulation can provide benefits related to three major aspects of engineering education: integration and application of theory, experimentation on human and organizational issues, and reflection about action, all of which agree with Schön’s (1983) vision of the reflective practitioner.

Socha, Razmov, and Davis (2003)—who applied Schôn’s vision in their work—argued that today’s engineers need five particularly skill sets: reflective, team, project, value, and design. From their perspective, such skills are developed mainly through experiential learning, as in simulations. These authors devised a software engineering course (junior undergraduate level) through which students can make mistakes and learn from these experiences. They reported that this teaching strategy yielded interesting results. One participating student explained the experience this way: “This simulated scenario in a controlled environment was the best learning experience in all my 4 years [at university]. More important than learning out of a book, I learned about myself” (p. 16).

Capstone projects can also potentially create authentic learning situations. Christodoulou (2004) outlined an integrated framework for an interdisciplinary course sequence, one in which students learned information technologies, project management, and civil engineering concepts, one known as fully integrated and automated project processes (FIAPP). In this approach, students are required to work on real-world projects and to integrate the numerous processes involved, such as planning, scheduling, estimating, and material management.

Finally, some educators have used experiential methods to create classroom conditions that closely resemble work experiences. Brown (2000) used this approach in implementing what she calls the service-learning method. In addition to normal class time spent learning about the basic tools (e.g., work breakdown structures (WBS) and planning techniques), students must devise, plan, and implement a real renovation project for a low-income senior citizen. According to Brown, this method provides students with a content-rich learning experience, one through which the students can develop a higher level of cognitive skills than traditional technique-oriented approaches allow. One of Brown’s students explained the course experience this way: “Outstanding way to teach project management. Should be used as the benchmark for all universities” (p. 57).

In addition to the various forms of intramural teaching methods, the recent proliferation of new technologies enabling universities to expand into new markets. One is teaching project management through e-learning formats. Although this offers several advantages, universities should not view this as a one-size-fits-all solution. Through interviews with training center managers, Gale (2003) found that blended solutions which include a balanced mix of online material and classroom interaction correspond better to the educational needs of project management students because the field’s concepts and technical skills are closely connected with relational and communication issues.

Overall, educators do have access to various teaching methods, which, for the most part, they can use for project management education. The classification presented in Figure 1 suggests that educators can choose a method based on the criteria that they are able (or wish) to apply. In this case, educators need to consider—when developing courses—three basic dimensions: whether or not a controlled environment is needed, whether there is a need to create dynamic interactions (between students or between the student and the computer), and whether one wishes to work with real projects. At this stage, this classification is still purely intuitive. In fact, the purpose of this article is not to further investigate the value of this classification but to show where capstone projects appear in a list of different methods. The next section provides more information about how educators have designed and planned project management education using the capstone-project approach.

Teaching Project Management within the Capstone-Project Approach

The proposed framework is part of a larger initiative put in place by École Polytechnique (known herein as the university) over the last two years. This institution is one of the largest engineering schools in Canada and teaches eleven engineering disciplines at the undergraduate level (civil, chemical, mechanical, industrial, software, mining, geological, physical, electrical, material, and computer). More than 5,000 students are registered at École Polytechnique, 30% of whom are in post-graduate programs (Master’s and PhD). In recent years, the institution envisioned a major change in the way it should organize and manage its undergraduate engineering programs. In order to adapt to an increasingly complex and changing world, it decided that it would develop new programs which would focus on integrating the engineering disciplines while allowing students to develop additional competencies in non-technical domains (e.g., humanities, languages).

Another objective of this initiative was to promote more innovative pedagogical approaches, such as project-based learning opportunities. Instead of having a traditional curriculum (fundamentals early in the program and specialized courses in the last years), the university decided that it would offer specialized courses earlier so that students could apply discipline knowledge while working on a different capstone project each year. All academic programs now have four capstone projects, one per year of study. (In Canada, engineering programs last four years.) In the fall of 2005, the university began gradually initiating this new program structure.

This major change has proved to be a unique opportunity: The university is reviewing how it teaches project management at undergraduate levels. For the last few years, its courses in this discipline were taught using a standard textbook approach. Almost all undergraduates registered for the Project Management Course in their second or third year of study. This course covered the discipline’s most important concepts, as recognized in the standard textbooks (Gido & Clements, 2005; Meredith & Mantel, 2003; Nicholas, 2004). Though educators have made real efforts to diversify their teaching methods (practical, team assignments, interviews with professionals in the field, short case-studies, assignment on Microsoft Project©), their classroom methods for teaching project management was limited; most undergraduate engineering students do not have any practical field experience and therefore found it difficult to link management concepts and tools to the work they were expecting to perform as professional engineers.

These limitations suggested that the university needed a different, more student-centered approach, one that would focus on competencies that students could develop throughout their undergraduate education. In other words, the objective was to develop an approach that would help students work through their capstone projects, as opposed to providing them with industry-centered training that most engineering students could not immediately apply.

Concepts, Teaching Team, and Resources

Though it may appear simple, the university found it quite challenging to devise a project management teaching approach that its faculty could apply to different capstone projects. The university used three basic principles to design and develop its approach.

First, the university proposed a competency-based approach. In doing so, it adopted PMI’s view of competencies, a view that focuses on knowledge, attitude, skills, and other personal characteristics, a view proposed by both Parry (1998) and Crawford (1997). More specifically, PMI (Project Management Institute, 2002) describes three dimensions of project management competencies: project management knowledge, project management performance, and personal competency. In traditional academic programs, the first dimension is usually over-developed, as opposed to the two others, mainly because of the limitations described above. By putting more emphasis on what students should be able to do and not only on what they know, the university expected that its program could involve the other two dimensions and achieve a better balance between the three dimensions. (The next section provides more details on how the units of competence were defined and applied.) By adopting the first principle, the faculty was able to spend much more time supporting the students as they implemented their projects. This involved using other teaching practices to compensate for the reduced hours of formal teaching. In this regard, the faculty is creating e-learning modules that will allow students to review—outside the class—the project management concepts that they must use to complete their projects. The faculty is also developing additional modules to teach more advanced project management concepts that may be less applicable to capstone projects.

The second principle that the university adopted was the complete project cycle, focusing primarily on the management processes (from initiating to closing). To successfully adopt this principle, the university must teach it from the beginning and continue to do so with increasing levels of sophistication as students progress from year one to year four. With this, this university must gradually introduce students to a supporting software application (e.g., Microsoft Project©), again from year one to year four. This approach provides students with an incremental and cumulative learning process that their gradual learning of other project management concepts.

This approach’s third underlying principle requires faculty to truly interact with each other and adopt an interdisciplinary view of projects. Considering the typical university culture where professors tend to work in isolation from one another, this principle proved a great challenges to realize because the interdisciplinary view brings together professors whose specialties are quite different. To resolve this challenge, the university involved—in each project—professors from three disciplines:

  1. A specialist in the project’s technical content who would act as team leader;
  2. A specialist in project management processes;
  3. A psychologist to coach students in the development of personal competencies (e.g., group dynamics, conflict resolution).

The first specialist (content) changes from one year to the next, depending on the nature of the project and the discipline involved. Even within a single engineering department, projects may evolve so that students are asked to work on different problems every year. In civil engineering for example, students may be required to work on projects in structure, hydraulics, or environmental studies. Similarly, students in industrial engineering might be required to carry out projects in ergonomics, information systems, or logistics.

The Competency-based Approach

The university’s proposed approach is based partly on PMI’s Project Manager Competency Development Framework (Project Management Institute, 2002), which identifies a series of elements within a competency cluster and a unit of competence structure. According to this model, it is possible to identify specific elements of competencies within each cell of a table that links the PMBOK® Guide’s nine Knowledge Areas to the five general management process groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling, and Closing (see Figure 2).

Linking the PMCD framework (Project Management Institute, 2002) to project management training

Figure 2: Linking the PMCD framework
(Project Management Institute, 2002) to project management training

For the purpose of the capstone projects, the university selected a series of elements that students are most likely to use during their four-year undergraduate experience. These elements represent the pedagogical content that professors need to transmit—during those four years—to students, whether in the course of in-class coaching or through e-learning modules.

For example, the elements covered in the first-year project incorporate basic knowledge and know-how related to the identification of project objectives, deliverables, metrics, constraints, and hypotheses. Students are then asked to write a project charter and a brief project plan. They identify the basic elements of competence as they become more familiar with Microsoft Project©. All of these elements are discussed in class with the project management professor. After some basic explanations, the students are given applied exercises. In the following periods, they meet in teams and apply these concepts to their projects.

Discussion: What We Learned and What We Need to Know

While writing this paper, we observed the first experiment in using this approach. It yielded interesting and promising results. The university introduced the first-year project management module to 60 students with no previous experience of capstone projects. In fact, most of these students lacked experience in working with project management processes. In addition to several gains that were observed, we noted some interesting challenges that face us and the students—and a number of these challenges involve how well the students and their professors understand project management.

As for the gains achieved, we observed that class interactions generated more positive and efficient group dynamics as faculty incited students to develop a common understanding of the problem that they had to work on. For some students, the project’s conflicts emerged quickly, such as in creating the project charter, because of the numerous questions and constraints they needed to address: different ways of defining project objectives, different levels of expectations (performance), cultural differences, and dealing with individual schedule constraints vs. work to deliver. The students were able to resolve these conflicts because the professors (content, project management, and group psychology) coached them in dealing with their difficulties and guided them towards finding an acceptable compromise.

This example shows how using tools as simple as a project charter in training environments can generate discussions and conflicts similar to those in actual industrial settings. It is also shows that student-team members can acquire a better shared understanding of the project concept when they actively interact and negotiate among themselves than if they only listened to a professor talk the virtues of a project charter during a typical two-hour lecture.

By participating in this experience, students also gained an understanding of the intense cooperation that occurs within professorial project teams. This was the most significant benefit derived from this class, for the students and for the professors. Since these capstone projects tend to promote a student-centered pedagogy, the professor’s role must gradually change. Each professor must act as a facilitator rather than as a guardian of a truth. Professors should support students as they develop competencies; they can provide this support through guidance and feedback.

Overall, we observed that the application of project management techniques to a capstone project did influence the way student teams managed their time and their workload. In most cases, these tools helped the students to better define deliverables, plan their activities, and ultimately, save time. All of this was accomplished by using very simple but effective tools—such as templates—that the faculty distributed to students.

In addition to the positive outcomes, the university’s initial experience with this approach also revealed some challenges that it will need to address in the future. For example, even though most students did not have a deep a priori comprehension of project management processes, many of them tended to naturally adopt a rather static and simplistic view of this discipline, confining their approach to the practice as one involving a simple, one-time activity of building a Gantt chart. Faculty must explain that project management goes far beyond basic time management processes.

Another unforeseen challenge that we identified during the year one capstone project concerns project definition. Students asked: What is the project that we must work on? Students seemed confused between the technical project that the professor was requested (e.g., redesign a product, design a tool) and the “other project”, the one involving the context in which their technical project is implemented. A project drawn from industrial engineering illustrates this issue: Students are asked to design and plan the implementation of a new production line; they were allowed to apply project management processes in two different situations. Scenario A involves asking students to apply certain techniques (e.g., cost and time management) to the problem. Students would then behave as if they were real engineers, trying to establish a sound project plan that takes into account the various constraints affecting the situation described by the professor. This classic approach allows students to really explore the details of the case. But overall, they remained on the anticipation side of the process. In other words, they can only plan the project; regardless of the quality of their planning, they will never be in a position to test this plan by executing and controlling the project.

Scenario B involves applying project management techniques directly to an actual student project. For example, students are asked to specify the project’s scope and to identify the deliverables required by the professor. This scenario may include the project plan for the fictitious case (Scenario A), but it must also take into account the other work products that the student team must produce throughout the semester for the three professors involved (the project team’s customers), products such as exams they need to write about certain theoretical content delivered within the capstone project.

Scenario A is about the professor’s project; Scenario B is best described as the students’ project. Realistically, this second option better reflects the university’s vision for its program. Such an approach provides many advantages, including the fact that students live with their planning and must justify it. This is quite different from a traditional approach where students work with fictitious data. Although this distinction seems clear here, it is not obvious to those who are unfamiliar with teaching project management. As the proposed approach arouses interest among the university’s various engineering programs, this issue is likely to generate further discussion and debate.

Conclusion

Teaching project management to undergraduate students is undeniably more challenging than teaching it to professionals, who usually demonstrate more intrinsic motivation (and need) to acquire knowledge and skills that can help them more effectively realize their projects. In this paper, we described an approach that one university believes can enhance the value of undergraduate training in project management and that its students and faculty perceive as valuable. Instead of traditional in-class lectures, the university teaches project management through concrete situations (capstone projects) occurring over a period of four years. Additionally, the university will also offer more advanced learning concepts—not directly applicable to capstone projects—using e-learning strategies.

Considering the importance of developing a young engineer’s project management competencies, university should develop new teaching methods to create more authentic learning conditions that prepare students for professional working conditions. École Polytechnique hopes that its approach will prove to be one of these methods.

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©2006 Project Management Institute

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