Van Wie, right, and Abdul took DLMs to a University of Oklahoma intersession class
during the recent Christmas break.
 
 
PULLMAN – Only 20 of 50 students graduated in Baba Abdul’s engineering class at a top Nigerian university. He said he suffered through traditionally taught courses where professors told students none would earn an A and then began to lecture.
 
“They didn’t help us to build our knowledge,” said the Ph.D. student in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical and Bioengineering.
 
Determined to do differently, Abdul is working with Bernard Van Wie, a professor in the school, to improve engineering education.
 

Abdul, center with baseball cap, points to a DLM
cartridge with a team of Oklahoma students during
an active learning exercise.
Van Wie’s team recently received a $600,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant (see related story here) to continue work on development and use of a desktop learning module (DLM). The DLM, designed by Ph.D. student Paul Golter, is an apparatus with multiple, easily removable cartridges that can be reconfigured to perform experiments.
 
Abdul joined WSU’s Ph.D. program as a result of Van Wie’s recent Fulbright exchange and NSF Office of International Science and Engineering supplement for work at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria.
Closing the gap between teaching, learning
 
Van Wie has been working since the late 1990s to close the gap between how students learn and the way engineering traditionally has been taught. In particular, he led a team of researchers in developing a curriculum based on cooperative, hands-on, active, problem-based learning (CHAPL).
Professional educators have known for years about the benefits of such learning approaches, Van Wie said, and for engineering, hands-on learning is particularly important. The typical student interested in engineering already tends to be better at learning-while-doing and at absorbing visual rather than verbal information. While non-lecture techniques have been used at the elementary school level, acceptance has been slow in college, especially in engineering and the hard sciences.
 
As part of the effort to develop an active curriculum, Van Wie uses the DLM. Students learn to match the math they are learning with what is actually happening physically.
 
‘Real engineering’ simulates real life
 
For instance, the DLM contains a heat exchanger. Students conduct experiments to understand the concept of heat transfer between fluids.
 
The researchers have tested students’ understanding of concepts as they participate in hands-on and project-based learning. From evaluations, the team has found students prefer the hands-on activities and the projects that depend on understanding built during those activities.
“They feel that they’re doing real engineering,’’ Abdul said, “and the group work that they do simulates what happens in an engineering firm.’’
 
The researchers found that working on team-based projects allowed students to learn valuable evaluation skills. The students actually rated themselves more harshly than professors and industry advisers did.
 
“The learning that happens is a complex learning experience that is focused and authentic,’’ said Abdul.
Van Wie’s team has shown that students using DLMs show statistically significant improvements in critical thinking skills and understanding of engineering concepts.
Expanding to more classes, universities
 
With the new grant, the researchers will expand use of the DLM from initial testing in a chemical engineering transport phenomena class into a variety of engineering classrooms, including civil, mechanical, bio and electrical engineering.
 
For example, in chemical engineering, the researchers will try out the DLM in thermodynamics and in a senior unit operations laboratory.
The DLM also is being tested in classes at five different institutions, ranging from a two-year college to private four-year universities and a research university. And researchers hope to begin working with industry partners to produce a commercial product.
 
During the 2010 Christmas break, the researchers successfully integrated DLMs into a University of Oklahoma intersession class with professor Ed O’Rear, a collaborator from Oklahoma’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department.
 
Read earlier articles here and here.