Project-based learning at forefront of summer school experience

Students in a science summer school workshop

Students in a science summer school workshop

In summary: 
  • The UTS U@Uni Summer School program aims to demystify university and build confidence for tertiary study
  • The program uses a transdisciplinary approach in its project-based learning, and heralds a change in how curriculum is taught and delivered in schools
  • 66 per cent of participants would be the first in family to pursue a university education

Collaboration, innovation, technology... buzzwords of today in education. UTS’s U@Uni Summer School program pushed boundaries further this year to explore these concepts in its two-week experience for 183 high school students from southwest Sydney.

Now in its ninth year, the dynamic schools outreach program provides students with a real campus experience that aims to demystify university and build confidence for tertiary study. Many come from a refugee background, while half of all students come from a non-English speaking background. Sixty six per cent would also be the first in their family to pursue a university education.

Media summer school students 'on set' creating a short film Media summer school students 'on set' creating a short film

Students were mentored by UTS academics, students and industry professionals in strands including Business, Science Investigation, Media and Communication, Design, Engineering and Information Technology, and Health. Designing floating houses for an earthquake-resistant city in civil engineering and creating a current affairs news piece with the neighbouring ABC were new additions to this year’s program.

This year’s curriculum also tapped into more transdisciplinary learning approaches. Teachers and researchers from multiple disciplines were actively involved with the students in a shared process of defining and resolving a complex problem in society.

Civil engineering students designing earthquake-proof cities Civil engineering students designing earthquake-proof cities

“The idea behind the project-based learning we do here is to actually get the students involved in real-world challenges, something they can sink their teeth into,” says Murray Henstock, a science teacher from Wiley Park Girls High School who has participated in the holiday program for students for the past three years. “Rather than going into an exercise for the sake of it, there’s an aim, a goal, relevance as to why they’re doing it in the first place.” 

Coordinator for the business summer school Katt Robertson drove the revamped curriculum into the start up space this year, encouraging the next generation of innovative entrepreneurs. Students worked with the Faculty of Science and the UTS Hatchery to explore the development of a start-up around a scientific solution to a national problem, with a panel of industry start-up professionals brought in to give feedback. 

Project presentations in the business summer school Project presentations in the business summer school

“We introduced the students to the mindset, creativity and resilience required to be a successful entrepreneur,” explains Robertson. “This means 'learning by doing' and viewing failure and mistakes as necessary aspects to being successful. A lot of businesses fail in the first five years; there will be hiccups along the way, but what matters is how they deal with it.

“Encouraging the transdisciplinary approach means, as business students, they can be as creative as their design friends and work alongside peers from other industries.”

While traditionally the focus of summer school has always been on the student experience, more emphasis is being placed on opportunities for high school teachers.

Teachers Day allowed for information-sharing around how transdisciplinary experiences and project-based learning opportunities are created for summer school students, and how UTS’s latest teaching and learning methods support this. The creation of UTS's new Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation, the only one of its kind in the world, reflects this new direction.

Teachers Day was a new introduction to summer school this year Teachers Day was a new introduction to summer school this year

Head Teacher for Science at Merrylands High School Alice Leung, a STEM Advisor for the NSW Department of Education and for UTS, says the networking opportunity was a great way for teachers to strengthen and extend their professional learning networks.

“Teachers Day enabled teachers from a diverse range of schools to connect with each other and collaborate. There are many benefits to project-based learning; it can be used as a strategy for more effective cross-curricular learning. It also allows students more ownership of their learning and builds their skills in collaboration, critical thinking and self-regulation – essential for the 21st century.”

Other speakers on the day included Dr Tanja Golja who helped design the new learning spaces on campus, and Head Teacher in Technological and Applied Studies Grant Odei from Granville Boys High School. O’dei has participated as an engineering teacher for summer school since the program’s inception in 2009 and champions the use of summer school’s project-based learning methods.

“Working with UTS academics and mentors, I’ve developed multiple ways of incorporating hands-on project ideas in my own teaching. I recall one of the past summer school graduations where a parent was so elated about what her son had accomplished she came up to me and said loudly, "You have to do this at school!" I totally agreed with her. 

“In my first year of summer school, we only had two students from Granville Boys who were interested. Now, we've had to implement an application process to select students. It’s brilliant.”

Teachers from southwest Sydney and local precinct schools are invited to connect with UTS experts to support their project-based learning. Contact Lisa Aitken for more information.