WSU receives NSF grant for engineering education

PULLMAN– Washington State University researchers in engineering and education have received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that they hope will help professors learn successful techniques for teaching and move away from traditional lectures.

“It is widely accepted that traditional lectures are not the best pedagogy for students – yet that is what the community almost universally does,” said Bernard Van Wie, a WSU professor of chemical engineering.

Based on teaching methods he used and assessed in an experimental undergraduate engineering course, Van Wie developed a portable, desktop box that engineering professors can handily use to teach lessons in fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

As part of the NSF grant, Van Wie will be working with Gary Brown, director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology in the Office of Undergraduate Education to disseminate and assess over time the group learning pedagogy with six other universities around the country.  The other institutions include the University of Oklahoma, San Jose State University, the University of Arkansas, the University of Cincinnati, Colorado School of Mines and Purdue University.  We will compare student learning outcomes when taught using the Desktop Hands-on Cooperative Learning Modules (DLMs) against those taught in a more traditional fashion.

“Assessment data will provide information about learning and teaching using new methods, and the overall approach will serve as a test case model for evaluating ways of introducing new pedagogies and developing a community of scholars dedicated to a new approach,” added Brown.

Professional educators have known for years about the benefits of using cooperative, hands-on, active or problem-based learning approaches.  Research shows that although students typically remember 70 percent of a traditional lecture over the first 15 minutes of class, retention afterwards quickly falls to 20 percent and remains such throughout the remainder of a 50-minute lecture, says Van Wie.  At the elementary school level, non-lecture techniques have been commonly accepted and used.  But in college, especially in engineering and the sciences, lecturing remains the most common teaching format.  Faculty members also may not have access to lab space and the bulky equipment that active learning techniques often require.

For engineers, hands-on learning is particularly important, says Van Wie.  The typical student interested in the field already tends to be better at learning while doing and at absorbing visual rather than verbal information. The National Science Foundation has recently begun pushing for a more learning-centered approach in science and engineering. 

Using the desktop modules, students learn to match the math they are learning with what is actually happening physically.  So, for instance, to understand the concept of heat transfer they will have in front of them a small working heat exchanger with temperature indicators at different spots.  Equations explaining heat transfer concepts are written by the students on a small white-board immediately above this physical model or on a nearby tablet of paper.  Students can plug numbers into the equation for the surface area, liquid temperatures, and heat transfer coefficients, but these numbers can only be determined by close inspection and analysis of the physical system in front of them.  So, instead of memorizing the equation, the students are learning the physical and phenomenological meaning behind the terms that make up the equation.  Furthermore, because this hands-on apparatus also contains valves and flow measuring equipment, running conditions can be changed and observed, and temperature changes can be compared with what the equations predict.

“Rather than using a set of equations and solution procedures as a recipe for getting ‘the answer,’ students work to understand the underlying physical concepts that make the equation useful,’’ said Van Wie.  “Every term in the equation now has a physical meaning that can be observed in the working module in front of them.”

In addition to seeing problems physically, students are required to explain concepts to each other, which also increases their conceptual understanding.  A class is typically split into four or five groups.  For a new set of concepts, each member of a group is assigned to learn a particular task.  With the aid of the physical modules, the students learn about their process with those in the other groups who were assigned the same task.  Then they return to their home group where they facilitate and help the rest of the group learn the concepts.  This learning strategy is termed “Jigsaw” by educators because every group member holds a critical intellectual piece.  Without each member the total conceptual puzzle is not complete.

The instructor, meanwhile, acts as a learning coach who steers the students to the right concepts, helps to stimulate thinking, and makes sure the students fully understand concepts.

“Instead of giving what we might consider a ‘perfect’ lecture that most of the students will forget anyway, we listen to what they actually know and assess their level of understanding,’’ says Van Wie.  “As they talk, instructors identify learning needs and misconceptions, and guide discussions until virtually all the students in the group either understand the concepts at hand or know exactly what they need to work on to complete their understanding.”

By developing the DLMs, the researchers hope that faculty will be more willing to use the new types of cooperative, hands-on, active, problem-based pedagogy and that students will learn both the core course concepts as well as ‘soft skills’ like team work and communication skills that are a necessary part of an engineering career.   The long-term goal of the project is to disseminate the techniques and learning modules nationally and internationally.

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