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Professor recognized nationally for advancements in hands‑on learning

Van Wie and a desktop module containing fluid.
Professor Bernie Van Wie and a desktop learning module.

Bernie Van Wie has spent much of his career turning classrooms into active learning environments where students stay engaged by doing hands-on activities. 

“They’re getting the blood flow going, and they’re all busy thinking about what’s going on,” said Van Wie, a professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering. “No one is drifting in and out. It’s a huge difference to see people excited about what’s going on and engaged — You really realize we have not been teaching students in the best way to learn.”

Van Wie was recently awarded the 2022 Award for Innovation in Chemical Engineering Education from the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE) Education Division. He was cited for his work to develop, deploy, and assess use of innovative desktop learning modules that, while used in a traditional classroom setting, enable an experiential understanding of fundamental engineering phenomena.

Van Wie began work toward developing a low-cost, small footprint set of engineering experiments in the early 1990s when he was teaching fluid mechanics and heat transfer. He saw that students needed to see and do engineering to understand it well. The portable modules he uses now are made of clear plastic and allow students to observe flow patterns of water through fluid chambers and heat exchangers to understand difficult concepts. Working on problems in teams of three or four, the students can learn the physical meanings behind the terms in their engineering equations. 

“They get to visualize what’s happening, and that’s the really important thing,” he said. “They see it and then they go back and explain why it does what they just saw. Rather than taking what the professor says, they really understand it themselves.”

The modules have been used in several chemical and mechanical engineering courses, including fluid mechanics, heat transfer, and kinetics and are now being used in engineering courses at some 50 universities around the U.S. as well a school in Ghana. The hands-on devices can be directly used in the classroom, unlike some other expensive devices on the market that need a functioning laboratory.

“The ultra-low-cost of the experiments make it possible for engaging investigations to be integrated widely throughout fluid mechanics and heat transfer courses,” he said. “With a target cost comparable to a textbook, these experiments make it possible for teams of students to pursue their own investigations of fluids and heat transfer phenomena.”

The learning modules make a difference for students and have been shown to improve understanding of engineering concepts. So, for instance, in some classes 70% of students gained competency in the needed engineering concepts as opposed to 39% among control groups. Students also are thought to build collegiality through the activities, which transfers to success in other classes.

Van Wie’s work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, USDA, the Norcliffe foundation, and Washington State University. He received a Fulbright award to share his work in Nigeria, which led to a grant to develop and disseminate the modules in several areas of Nigeria. His most recent work is supported by a 5-year National Science Foundation grant to distribute the hands-on kits to universities across the US. Van Wie is quick to give credit to his colleagues and students who have contributed to the success of the work.

He will receive the award at the annual meeting of the AIChE that will be held in Phoenix, Arizona in November. 

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