Acquiring Skills for Academic Success through Project-Based Learning in First-year Engineering

  • Brian Peach Memorial University of Newfoundland
  • Darlene Spracklin-Reid
  • Steve Bruneau


This paper presents the development of a ballista-themed project that comprises part of the pilot of a redeveloped first-year engineering course at Memorial University. The course aims to teach students to “think like an engineer” and provide them with skills and tools to support them throughout their engineering education. Students learn to use tools such as Microsoft Excel and Matlab through the use of meaningful, yet accessible, technical assignments.
Students are acquiring requisite engineering knowledge while developing a skill set that will support further learning. The ballista project requires students to design a simple numerical computer model linking the launch and trajectory of a projectile in order to calculate the launch settings required to hit a series of targets. In preparation for the project, instruction is offered on topics including the conservation of mechanical energy, projectile motion and numerical integration. Students compete using an assembled, moderately sized ballista prototype to launch wooden spheres at a castle-like structure. Student use their computer models along with experiment-based model corrections to account for discrepancies in  theoretical and actual trajectories.