Active learning is a process whereby students engage in activities that promote higher order learning skills like analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Project and Problem-based learning (both under the PBL acronym) are active and learner-centered methodologies in which students develop their ability to go through a problem solving process, usually based on real-life situations.
Engineering is one of the areas where PBL has shown clear benefits. An engineer is a professional practitioner, concerned with applying scientific knowledge and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. The responsibilities of the engineer may include defining problems, conducting and narrowing research, analyzing criteria, finding and analyzing solutions, and making decisions. Engineers must weigh different design choices on their merits and choose the solution that best matches the requirements. Their crucial and unique task is to identify, understand, and interpret the constraints on a design in order to produce a successful result.
Several studies identified the benefits of PBL for engineering students: considerable improvements in critical, lateral and creative thinking, problem solving strategies, intrinsic motivation, group collaboration, communication skills, entrepreneurship and collaboration with society and regional development. From an engineering perspective, the PBL approach should play an important role since most innovation and real-life problem solving is based on cross disciplinary, interdisciplinary and collaborative knowledge.
In a convergent path, games and simulations can be instantiated for learning as they involve mental and physical stimulation and develop practical skills – they force the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities, to solve problems, etc. Games can also be social environments, sometimes involving large distributed communities. They imply self-learning abilities (players are often required to seek out information to master the game itself), allow transfer of learning from other realities and are inherently experiential with the engagement of multiple senses. Therefore, gaming and simulation environments are excellent learning tools because they can replicate real contexts or even provide training situations that occur in very specific circumstances while retaining the players’ motivation to learn. Mixing PBL, games, simulations and virtual environments provides a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) where digital natives feel comfortable because they are immersed in technology, they can communicate and they are active. We cannot forget that this generation of Higher Education students is the "net-generation" or "digital natives": they are used to technology, they absorb information in shorter chunks, they expect instant responses and feedback, they want interactive and immersive forms of learning and they want to be active in their learning.
The objective of the ALIEN (Active Learning in International Engineering contexts) project is to design an Active Learning methodology based on PBL (Project/Problem) supported by simulators and games to support real-life issues that relate to math, science and engineering concepts. This platform will be used to scaffold learning for higher education engineering students.