Faculty teams invigorating key courses
Decades ago, college faculty began teaming up as researchers, spurring many engineering breakthroughs that would not have otherwise occurred. More recently, an academy in the College of Engineering began encouraging faculty to form teams for teaching as well.
The goal of the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3) is to develop high-level teaching skills throughout the College, and it offers several different programs to engineering faculty members.
MechSE professors in particular have taken advantage of AE3’s Strategic Instructional Initiatives Program (SIIP), with two different faculty teams—one that teaches foundational theoretical and applied mechanics (TAM) courses and one that teaches mechanical engineering (ME) design courses—launching efforts that are helping to set a new standard for teaching excellence.
“This department has always cared about teaching and cared about its students,” said Professor Charles Tucker, a former MechSE associate head for undergraduate programs who now serves the entire campus as vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation. In between these two appointments, he was the associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering, where he helped launch the SIIP program.
“I’ve been known to say that the MechSE Department teaching award is the hardest to win because the competition is tougher. There’s just a great tradition of strong teaching here.”
The goals of each of the two faculty teams have been to: 1. Create and implement changes to improve students’ learning experience and 2. Form teams of instructors so the improvements get passed along from semester to semester. This allows for a superior learning experience that can be sustained even when a new instructor takes over the course.
“I think this in-depth co-teaching and mentoring strategy is really different,” said MechSE associate professor Matt West. “It’s been really successful in terms of bringing people up to speed on these pretty challenging classes to teach.”
One major challenge is improving student engagement and enthusiasm while maintaining the current high level of rigor. To achieve this, state-of-the-art pedagogical and technological solutions are planned, implemented, and analyzed.
TAM 211, 212, and 251
Now in its third and final year of SIIP funding, the faculty team has gotten a lot of “bang for the buck,” as it instructs courses that have approximately 2,500 student enrollments each year. These are the foundation
al TAM courses: Introductory Statics, Introductory Dynamics, and Introductory Solid Mechanics.
“The TAM program has really been a model for other programs,” said Laura Hahn, the director of AE3. “We are grateful for that.”
In addition to West, the faculty team for the TAM courses includes Geir Dullerud, Elif Ertekin, Randy Ewoldt, Blake Johnson, SungWoo Nam, Mariana Silva, and Dan Tortorelli. West, Tortorelli, and Dullerud formed the original team to secure the SIIP funding, and the team has grown steadily each semester. Assistant Professor Mariana Kersh will join in Fall 2015.
“I would say in many ways the TAM SIIP team is what we hoped to see happening as we created the SIIP program,” said Geoffrey Herman, an AE3 administrator. “From the College’s perspective, the most important thing is that these changes are being sustained from semester to semester, it’s growing, and there’s excitement and engagement among multiple faculty to make these courses better for the students.”
One of the keys to this success is “blended learning,” which combines face-to-face instruction with computer-mediated learning. All of the instructional materials—including the actual lectures for the courses—are housed online, to be accessed by both instructors and students. And on
line discussions are continuously underway between professors, teaching assistants, and students.
“Students prefer online rather than offline material,” West said. “This has largely replaced office hours. If there was one really hard question on the homework, theoretically we would have to explain it 250 times to different students. Now, one TA writes a really good explanation and posts it online. Everyone reads the same explanation, and then there is some back-and-forth discussion. It really works great.”
With students digesting the bulk of the course material on their own time, classroom time is freed up for much more interactive learning than in previous years. During lectures, students use handheld iClickers to create an active learning environment. The remote control-like devices allow students to choose answers to multiple-choice questions raised by the instructors, thus enabling instructors to monitor immediately which subject matter has been understood well and which needs to be given more attention.
West noted that attendance in the large lecture courses has greatly increased because students find the classes more engaging.
“There is more interaction within lecture and in discussion sections,” West said. “It’s sort of this paradoxical thing, where you think if you go online, it’s going to reduce personal interaction, but actually you get more of it because you are not spending all this time sitting there, copying notes off the black board. I think it’s logical that when you get better interaction online you have all this time to argue with each other and have in-depth discussions offline.”
The discussion sections, which each contain about 20 students, were realigned so that the students now form four-person groups to work on assignments instead of working individually. While not all students favor this method at the start of the semester, by mid-semester an overwhelming majority of students say they see the value of the groups and would not want to go back to working alone.
ME 370 and 371
At the opposite end of the teaching spectrum from the large lectures of the foundational TAM courses, ME 370 and 371 are
very hands-on mechanical design courses.
The faculty team consists of Principal Investigator Steve Downing, working with Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler and Sameh Tawfick.
This team has also “flipped” its instruction by providing the lecture material for students to watch on video on their o
wn time. But, instead of freeing up class time for interactive classroom learning, they are providing the maximum amount of time for students to be doing hands-on design work.
“Our students are better prepared to design things after these two classes than was the situation five years ago,” said Downing, who has incorporated hands-on design in ME 371 for years. The SIIP grant has allowed him and the other faculty to formalize the structure of the courses and attract other instructors to join the team and sustain the improvements.
In the main ME 370 project for Fall 2013, four-student teams designed and created machines to shoot or throw darts at a target. Teams with the best machines went head-to-head in a final competition in the open commons area in Mechanical Engineering Laboratory.
In Spring 2014, each student team was tasked with completing two projects: writing a proposal for a “Drench Your Professor” booth, and designing and building BLAMs (Ball-LAunchingMechanisms). The two projects came together for a final competition, as the top teams faced off on the Bardeen Quad launching plastic balls at a target—a narrow tube. If the ball was on line and entered the tube, it activated the booth, and one of the course instructors got drenched inside the booth.
“Students have told me that this is the class where they have learned the most since they got here,” Tawfick said. “After taking this class, they really feel like they are becoming mechanical engineers.”