In a project-based course, the instructor's job, in my opinion, is to be a guide and a mentor through the problem. You have to know things like how to push students in the right direction and what information not to give them. You have to be smart about giving students challenges that they can conquer. You also need to fill in any technical gaps in the students' knowledge, one student at a time.
Ideally, the instructor would have done problems like this before but not this particular one. In fact, it helps if the instructor hasn't solved this one before. It's critical that the instructor not inject personal bias into the solution. The more the students "own" the problem and the solution, the more personally motivated they will be.
My role as the instructor changed as the course progressed through its four main segments: four weeks for the problem survey, four weeks for nitty gritty technical analysis, four weeks for project integration, and a final week for the final report and presentation. For more information about each segment of the course, please refer to the course Syllabus.
Dr. Short advises a student group. (Image courtesy of Curt Newton.)
In the first month of class, my job was to show students the field, including some of the relevant work that has already been done. I gave each sub-team one or two carefully chosen references that gave good surveys of each of the sub-topics in the problem, and that included references that would lead the students to more concrete details about each sub-problem.
In that way, we started showing them in a certain direction. I tried to get the momentum moving quickly in this first segment in order to set the tone for the rest of the course. We set a lot of concrete requirements week by week in the course: written reports about the references, progress reports about the groups' efforts, plans for next steps, and so on. Setting those concrete interim goals helped set the concrete goals of the course.
In the second month of the course, which focused on technical analysis, my job was both to guide them in their analysis of the problem and to fill in any gaps in their technical knowledge. No student is going to know everything going into the course. That's not expected at all. But, they have to know enough to solve the problem, so it was my job to identify each student's knowledge gaps as well as approaches for filling them. To do that, I had individual meetings with each student during the course to check: What are you doing now? What do you find easy? What do you find hard? Are there any bits and pieces that you need explained in a different way?
In the final month of work, a lot of class periods started out with diagramming the whole system, putting in key numbers, and evaluating the design as a whole. For the rest of class, the TA and I would check in with each group of students and ask questions like, "Where are you on this part of the problem? Do you guys know that Team B has a different number than you guys do?"
We helped them work together and bring different parts of the design together. It was sort of constant guidance and supervision. We had to know what everyone was doing and point them to talk to the right people. We also helped to maintain the momentum of the students. Their energy varied a lot over the semester, often from outside factors. We tried to keep that from affecting the students' performance in this course.
The final week was devoted to the final report and presentation. These are described in the Teaching Communication page.