Our Journey

An Engineering Assignment That Travels

The article was originally written for MNS Naturalist Article March 2021 Edition

By Dr. Poovarasi Balan, Lecturer and Researcher, Monash University Malaysia

“Imagine you are travelling in a train. A young girl next to you is reading a comic. As you glance over, you find that she is actually reading YOUR story. The environmental story that you’ve written with your groupmates, a long time ago for one of your class assignments during your university days. You can’t remember it anymore. It has faded in your memory. You have moved on into cycles of busy engineering practises. But, your story on ‘environmental awareness’ lived on. It travelled around. Not without any direction; But, with a purpose. Not just a simple one; But, a noble and a higher one. That is, cultivating environmental awareness in the young minds. Imagine being part of that kind of an assignment!”

The Problem

Teaching an environmental course to a bunch of chemical engineers, who prefer mathematical problem-solving compared to a high degree of theoretical content, can be a tricky business. They generally tend to have a deeply rooted perception that environmental courses are less challenging and intellectually-intriguing to their engineering brains, leading to less commitment to class attendance and interest in the subject matter. Such perceptions also give them a false confidence that they will be fine by ‘reading’ the content on their own, without the real need of an instructor or attending the classes religiously. On the other hand, this imposes a great challenge to the instructor of such courses (i.e. environmental and sustainability) to continuously strive to improve the class attendance and intensity of engagement. They often need to shed their old skin by introducing new teaching innovations to the course structure to encourage continuous engagement of their students.

Making teaching and learning innovations to an existing course often requires a lot of time and efforts of an instructor, robbing away their precious time from main research activities, sticks as a ‘phobia’ to many academics in the field, avoiding such heavy commitment, especially in engineering.

The Triggering Point

It all started on a random Monday morning in March 2019, when I was reading about land reclamation issues in Malaysia as part of my class preparation. Being new to the topic and commitment to teach well, I had to look for real case studies that will invoke interest in the class. I stumbled upon stories of Hawksbill turtles losing their nesting spots along the coastline of Straits of Melaka. And, I remember feeling very sad for these endangered voiceless creatures. What started as a simple yet strong emotion, led to a purposeful query in mind! “ What if we capture the stories of these creatures as part of class assignment ?”

The ‘Not So Possible’

Making your students do something out of the ordinary can be risky. And, setting a very different task from the traditional engineering assignments can be a subject of query too. Combining arts in engineering, that’s a ‘bizarre’ combination when it comes to chemical engineering assignment. The chemical engineering subjects predominantly deal with mathematical problem solving and formulas, considered ‘technical’ in nature. Students often do not favour a theoretical course, full of legislations and policies. Their preference is often related to their logical and analytical mind, given the nature of the engineering.

The ‘Bending Reality’

The most creative ideas are the ones that often looked ‘abnormal’ during its conception. Making the engineering students draw comics in class seemed ‘insane’ in the beginning, even to me as someone who came up with the idea. I was sceptical and was not able to see its relevance to engineering. So, communicating this ‘weird’ idea with the educational designer, Dr. Amutha from Education Excellence Unit of Monash University Malaysia (MUM) assigned to my course, we saw the possibility of mapping the chemical engineering program outcomes, Australian & Malaysian engineering accreditation competencies and the specific course learning objectives (ENE3608) to the ‘comics’ assignment to close the gaps and make it relevant. And, those were the moments of ‘bending reality’!

The Inception

Any idea will stay as an idea without execution. It will eventually die off. Bringing the well-crafted idea to a bunch of young minds who will most likely be in complete ‘denial’ is a tough challenge! But, it also seemed like a hole that that I dug upon myself! ☺ Creative ways of encouraging them to see the purpose of this ‘weird’ assignment requires deep inspiration for environmental consciousness and patience to ignite the ‘naysayers’! I set a scenario for them about their stories being read in trains, as indicated above! I used other strategies too. Seeing the mapping of the engineering competencies and listening to the purpose of the assignment, that it might one day reach the school kids of Malaysia, most of my students set themselves to the task wholeheartedly, overcoming their fear and hesitation. I continue to gauge their morale and emotional well-being during the implementation of this new task over 5 weeks by means of online polling tools. I noticed that they loved coming to my classes to draw and play with colors, that unleashed their creativity, often after a long day of experiments at labs!

I had many personal confessions from the class! Often with the rigorous feedback and brainstorming over a few weeks, their stories which often looked initially as ‘sad and emotional’ with turtles dying all the time, transformed into ‘solution-oriented’ engineering possibilities! And being solution-oriented and ability to communicate clearly to wider community, is important as future engineers in the making.

The Outcome

The comics produced in this class were the beginning of an environmental revolution in the minds of my class students, which is exactly what I wanted to ignite! Most importantly, they were happy being an artist, a story-teller, and an engineer, all at the same time, using the power of comics! I invited Mr. Balu Perumal (Head of Conservation) and Mr. Eric of Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) to my classes as guest lecturers. They sat through the students’ presentations and provided excellent feedback from an environmental point of view, to a bunch of chemical engineers in 2019. Their guest appearance and the creative presentations of the class (i.e. drama and acting) was truly inspiring! That moment, I realised the worth of sailing through the difficulties of implementing a fresh new idea!

The Continuation

The guest lecture triggered a successful collaboration between MNS and myself, securing an education grant from the Education Excellence Unit of MUM, worth RM 20K in August 2019 to December 2020. The collection of our comics, related online resources including games and worksheets can be seen in our dedicated website : www.ecoepic.org.

The project which is dedicated to the younger generation of Malaysia, in schools, involved a series of training series for the school teachers with overwhelming positive responses. The training is designed to share effective teaching pedagogies practised in classrooms, explore the land reclamation issues and role of EIA in Malaysia and introduce our resources to the fellow teachers. The training can help them to bring our work to their students effectively! Our comics are mapped carefully to promote the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations (UN) to be achieved by 2030 and therefore, teaches the students to embrace SDGs in their daily lives. We hope to be part of the UN's mission through the power of storytelling. Our ultimate goal is to create environmental consciousness and wise decision making skills to our Malaysian children and beyond!

The Conclusion

An adventurous teacher never settles down for something routine. They are always exploring. And, exploring for a ‘bigger good’ of the world to instil environmental consciousness seems worthwhile.

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” – C. S. Lewis

*The article is originally written for MNS Naturalist Article March 2021 Edition

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