Research for improving education looks at TAM students


College of Education Professor Emma Mercier with her multi-touch tables in the lab classroom.
College of Education Professor Emma Mercier with her multi-touch tables in the lab classroom.
College of Education Professor Emma Mercier is studying how TAM students work in groups as part of her research on collaborative learning.

In today’s world, engineers need a skillset that includes things like collaboration, communication, and being able to apply knowledge to complex problems. Mercier and her team, including professors Joshua Peschel (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Geoffrey Herman (iFoundry), are hoping to improve collaborative learning so that this skillset becomes a common lesson in the classroom.

“There’s a national concern about engineering education in general,” Mercier said. “The first couple years are often spent in a very traditional style where you take notes and do problem sets by yourself. It’s a very individual experience. The College of Engineering has been addressing these issues in the TAM courses, and our project aligns with these goals.”

Last semester, Mercier filmed TAM 210/211 students working in discussion sections to see what type of interactions students have when working in groups. “In a collaborative space, everybody in the group needs to know what the problem is and how to go about finding the answer,” Mercier said. “Just being able to talk about the process is important, and what we see a lot of the time is that one person goes off and starts doing something, and the rest of the group doesn’t really understand why they’re doing it.”

This lack of communication is what Mercier hopes to address. She plans to study the use of tablets and multi-touch tables in discussion sections to see if these tools can make it easier for students to collaborate.

Multi-touch tables are touchscreen surfaces that allow students to work in a shared space, and they have several useful features. Students can share their work with each other and show it to other students by sending it to other tables in the classroom. Through this project, software will be created to allow TAs to project work from a table for the class to see. The project aims to create tools that record the problem-solving work students do similar to a video file, so that later it can be shown and explained to the class step by step. 

“We’re really trying to give students the skillset to collaborate with each other,” Mercier said.

As part of her research, Mercier and her team will also explore the potential of sketch recognition, which is the computer’s ability to recognize what is being drawn on the screen. Sketch recognition, combined with artificial intelligence and built-in guidelines, could enable the computer to look at a student’s work or answer and know if it is correct. If the work is not following the given methods, the TA would be alerted. This could help TAs be more effective, especially in larger discussion courses.

Mercier’s work is part of a three-year project funded by a grant from NSF. “What I hope to do with these tools is take them into K-12 schools in a couple years’ time,” Mercier said. “We can create tools thatsupport TAs in teaching engineering students and later develop them into things that would be appropriate for middle school.”

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