How to engage students with live projects


Martin Andrews TV-Bay Magazine
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For many employers, how and what we teach at university is sometimes considered to be very mysterious. The responsibility for creating the structure and content within the curriculum is the responsibility of academics. In my experience, the best method for making sure that students and staff are kept up to date with current working practices is to regularly engage with ‘Live’ projects and ‘Real’ clients.

Working on ‘Live’ projects with ‘Real’ clients at the University of Portsmouth School of Architecture has been a key highlight of core and extracurricular activities for over a decade. The opportunities that they offer for University students and staff, but also charitable organisations and local community groups, are invaluable. While working on these projects, our students gain extraordinary vocational experience while practicing in a safe environment, staff keep themselves up-to-date with current working practices and charities and community groups are able to begin realizing their architectural ideas in an open and exciting design environment. As an institution, these types of projects allow us to perform our civic duty and support community projects and innovative ideas from the grass roots up.
As a teaching methodology live projects have been a useful weapon in engaging students in new and interesting ways.

In October 2008, I was invited to set-up and run the Project Office, an architectural practice firmly embedded within the Portsmouth School of Architecture. The mission of the Project Office was simple; connect students and staff with Portsmouth charities and groups as often as possible, to share architectural knowledge and expertise for the benefit of the local community. In the past twelve years the Project Office has worked with a significant number of clients.

In 2015, I was introduced to Charles Haskell. Charles is the Curator and Director of a charitable organisation called The World War 1 Remembrance Centre, located to the north of Portsmouth. He is an expert in all things World War 1. He has a particular style when addressing an audience; he is exciting and engaging and shares amazing stories which he illustrates in great detail using objects and artefacts that are housed in his Remembrance Centre. It did not take me long to introduce Charles to my undergraduate Interior Architecture and Design students, firstly as an extra-curricular event and then later as an assessed and fully embedded core-curriculum project. The brief for this project was a challenging one; to design a World War 1 Exhibition within a Grade 1 Listed Ancient Monument called Bastion 6. Charles has occupied this beautiful fortified structure, which was built in 1863, with his Remembrance Centre for several years.

For the past five years, Charles and I have chosen to continue to work collaboratively in this manner using the same project brief, because of the very positive student feedback that we receive at the conclusion of each academic cycle. Throughout the duration of this relationship, due to the outstanding commitment of Charles and his volunteers at the Remembrance Centre, we have been able to overcome the perennial concerns of academics; Student Dis-engagement.

It could be argued, in the UK at least, that the teaching of World War 1 history at primary and secondary schools has been overdone. By the time students have entered university many feel that they have had too much exposure to this particularly gruesome period in military history. For our EU and international students, the concept of World War 1 can be difficult to relate to simply because they have not had the same exposure as their UK counterparts. It became clear to Charles and I from an early stage that it was imperative to make the historical context and the brief for this project accessible and interesting to all students.

For these reasons, we decided to work with students and staff from the undergraduate Television and Broadcasting Degree Course at Portsmouth as a way of introducing an alternative method of communication to the project. Charles is very comfortable performing in front of an audience; he is confident, well prepared and has many World War 1 specific stories to share. In an afternoon of filming, we recorded ten short narratives in 4K detail, back-to-back, often in one take, with Charles speaking directly to camera.

These short films have proved to be, year-on-year, invaluable assets for the project. Students are able to choose a narrative that they are particularly interested in. The films are uploaded to our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) so students are able to watch and rewatch the stories. The narratives focus on important World War 1 characters from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. These stories can be easily linked to artefacts and objects within the World War 1 Remembrance Centre. Over the past five years these stories have enabled students to firmly hook in to the project from an early stage which allows them to begin developing their design ideas from a good foundation.

The challenge that Charles and I now face is how to keep this project fresh. Each year we aim to bring in something that is new, challenging and exciting. This year we recorded a series of project focused VLOGS. Next year we are hoping to take the students on a World War One Battlefield Tour. After that, who knows, but we will aim to continue developing this live project in interesting and engaging ways, using the latest technologies to enhance the learning experiences of our students.
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Martin Andrews is a Registered Architect (ARB) and a Principal Lecturer at University of Portsmouth School of Architecture.
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Contributing Author Martin Andrews

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