Pebble in the pond: scaled active learning in Engineering

My colleague, Dr Jenny Griffiths, talked excitedly on Twitter and then in the office the other day about the annual ‘Pebble in the Pond’ activity which forms an exciting and central part to the induction of new students to the IEP at UCL. It sounds amazing so I asked Jenny to share some thoughts on it in this guest post.


“Wood! Wood! Do we have enough wood? Do we have any wood? Where can we get wood for next week NOW?” (Dr. Fiona Truscott, September 2022) 

Having moved out of the UCL Engineering offices when I moved to UCL Arena, followed by pandemic remoteness for a while means that memories of the immense back-room organisation for teaching had drifted to the back of my mind. These joyfully returned when I spent some time at the SEFI conference with UCL Engineering staff.  

The beginning of the academic year means one thing for Integrated Engineering Programme (IEP) first year students: Pebble In The Pond. This ambitious teaching activity introduces over 800 students to collaboration, design thinking, communication and making mistakes through a bit of competition, large amounts of fun and huge amounts of cardboard, tape, elastic bands, paper and wood. The students work in small parallel teams on individual parts of a larger ‘machine’ that must transport a pebble from one side of a room to another in the style of Joseph’s machines and Crazy Contraptions (or the Great Egg Race for connoisseurs of 80s TV). 

The activity runs several times in the very first week of term to accommodate all of the students – there’s no hall big enough for them all at once! Nevertheless, the buzz when you walk into the room is incredible. There’s noise, mess, and most of all, new students learning to work with each other and have fun in this low stakes environment.  ripples in shallow water atop a bed of pebbles

So why run the activity? It’s fun and a great icebreaker, but more fundamentally, it’s also good education and sets the tone for much of the work the students will do during their degree. The IEP has a spine of project-based learning built in from the very beginning and Pebble is the first step in the scaffolding of students from task-based projects through to week-long discipline-based projects (scenarios) and onto true global-problem projects. The active learning allows students to practice and put their technical knowledge into instant use. In just a few hours students apply design thinking, discover the importance of an iterative design, build, test, modify cycle, find that systems integration is key to a big project, and that all of this is facilitated by good communication with others. They then get to reflect on this over the next few weeks, using this experience to shape their learning and thinking on the core transferable and employability skills that are essential for graduates and written into the accreditation requirements of Engineering degree programmes 

Part of my role in academic development in UCL Arena is looking out for inspiration from our faculties to share with the wider community, and ‘Pebble’ is a great example of that. It shows that we can create engaging learning activities that support development of employability skills while giving students the opportunity to apply a few discipline-specific skills (such systems integration and design thinking for engineers) along the way. It’s also designed as a springboard for student reflection on these skills as they move further into their degree programme. 

Engaging active learning can be done at scale, and I’m looking forward to next year’s already.