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Queen Mary Academy

Diversifying the Curriculum in Engineering UG Programmes

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Dr Rehan Shah

Lecturer in Mathematics and Engineering Education School Lead for Inclusive Scholarship, Centre for Academic Inclusion in Science and Engineering

Community-based placements in engineering education have the potential to generate benefits for students, universities and communities alike and are increasingly being formally included into the curriculum. This project investigates their framework, impact and outlook through co-creation with students as part of a collaborative study between QMUL and UCL.

Responding to a need

Forming strong regional partnerships and engaging with local businesses has become an institutional priority in the higher education sector, particularly within engineering disciplines. One example of this is through community-based placements, which we define as education/teaching-focused partnerships between universities and local communities that form credit-bearing components of the university curriculum. However, existing practice-based literature on placement development and impact has not fully caught up with this trend.

We believe scoping work in this area is essential, considering many universities like UCL and QMUL have campuses within underrepresented geographical areas such as London’s East End district. This project therefore aims to generate a comprehensive state-of-the-art review of all aspects of community-based placements at undergraduate and postgraduate taught levels to benefit engineering education: how they are initiated and in what contexts, what their advantages and limitations are and their impact on employability and student experience.

The research questions underpinning our scoping study were:

1.      How are community-based placements framed and carried out in UK universities?

2.      What are the relevant emerging research areas , in and outside engineering education, that should be pursued to improve student and community partners’ engagement and experience?

3.      How could university-community partnerships be strengthened through placements?


Approach used

We adopted a mixed methods approach informed by a qualitative investigation of research literature in the field together with publicly available resources and provisions across other institutions aimed at supporting community-based learning and placements. This data enabled us to map the community- based placements provision across the UK and develop a research agenda to inform future areas of investigation.

Our empirical research methods drew on those used in participatory qualitative research and included focus groups, one-to-one interviews and group reflection techniques, to provide us with qualitative data to incorporate a range of perspectives on community-based placements from the following:

• Community partners at UCL East and QMUL - one focus group with 10 participants in each institution and 5 interviews

• UCL and QMUL staff who focus on community and student engagement - one focus group with 6 participants and 3 interviews

• Students who have undergone or are planning to go on community-based placements – one focus group with 10 participants

For the participatory co-creation aspect of our project, we engaged current undergraduate and postgraduate students from both QMUL and UCL to work with us as partners by offering 5 Research Assistant (RA) internships to work with each of the three types of participants (student, staff, community) in data collection and data analysis with the aim of further developing an inclusive research agenda.



The project team recently took part in the UK & Ireland Engineering Education Research Network (EERN) Annual Conference 2023, hosted at the University of Warwick in June 2023, for which our student research assistants organised and spearheaded a workshop on ‘Enabling the student voice in the design of community-based placements in engineering education’. Our research shows that the concept of co-designing placements is an emerging research area in the field.

Educator participants and academic researchers in the workshop were prompted to consider all the benefits and opportunities associated with community-based placements, and discuss ways in which students could be involved in the learning design of such placements. Participants also reflected on the barriers that currently prevent such student involvement and then, brainstormed practical ways to tackle these challenges.

We found that the benefits that our participants generally associate with community-based placements are networking, authentic, real-world learning, and they also described placements as being ‘fun, challenging and rewarding’ experiences for students.

In terms of the ways in which students can get involved in the design of placements, participants reported that students could help in the initial stages of designing placements, such as researching and discovering the real needs of the community, finding community partners that the university could partner up with for a placement, and finally, participating in the process of devising tailored projects for the given community.

One of the main challenges according to our participants is the students’ general lack of interest in community-based work, which stems from the limited focus on community-centred education within the engineering curriculum.

Participants agreed that the best way to tackle this challenge is to make the benefits of community-based work for students explicit to them, so that they know how valuable this experience will be for them in academic, professional and personal plan.



We have also been successful in receiving additional renewed funding for a follow-on project, which will complement and build on the findings of the scoping study. Our future areas of work include the following:

  1. We will be analysing the research agenda co-created with our student research assistants in the initial phase and prioritise the areas we should tap into next.  
  2. In the scoping study, we limited our definition of community-based placements to credit-bearing activities that are part of the curriculum. In this second stage we will expand this definition to include summer internships, mentoring, volunteering and other types of activities that we consider relevant. 
  3. We would also consider expanding our study to international settings to investigate best practice methods to compare and contrast them with the UK context.  

    To carry out the follow-on project, we will once again hire student co-researchers to contribute to all stages of the projects.  

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