Liebenberg mixes conventional learning and play
With the help of a College of Engineering grant, MechSE Senior Lecturer Dr. Leon Liebenberg and colleagues are testing and evaluating the effectiveness of a variety of play-in-learning teaching methods as they are incorporated into different engineering classes.
The project, “Play in Learning: Cognition, Emotion, and Playful Pedagogy,” is funded through SIIP, the Strategic Instructional Innovations Program, that awards grants to faculty teams that are working to incorporate collaboration, creativity, excitement, measurement, perseverance, and continual improvement into their teaching. MechSE also supports the program with an in-kind financial contribution.
One of the main objectives of the project is to create a teaching strategies matrix. The matrix will describe and compare methods of using different types of play-based activities to enhance classroom learning. Methods range from gamified electronic class quizzes and virtual reality apps to creating graphic novels and roleplaying experiences. The goal is to create a useful guide that will help educators decide which activities could be the most impactful for their specific courses.
The SIIP project has a diverse body of contributors from the departments of MechSE, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Educational Psychology, Food Science and Human Nutrition, Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. The interdisciplinary faculty members in this group are actively testing play-in-learning methods across a broad range of students in their classes. Collaboration and formal assessments of the methods throughout the project should produce publishable results, and at the end of the three-year grant the findings will be submitted to the university.
Play-based learning activities encourage higher order thinking and problem-solving skills vital to engineering, and have been shown to boost test scores and improve comprehension of complex concepts. The reason is simple: play facilitates an emotional connection with subject matter, and when students care about something they are more likely to remember it. Liebenberg has been exploring play activities in his teaching for some time, and has seen how these methods help students build emotional connections to course content that result in improved learning outcomes and experiences.
“That’s the main essence of games and playful learning techniques,” Liebenberg said. “To get students to engage emotionally with whatever engineering topic or subject they’re looking at—to analyze it not just from a cognitive level, but also from an emotional level. To literally “play” with ideas.”
Liebenberg adds that the greater value of emotional learning could be the reintroduction of empathy into industry. With rapid advances in technology, and increasing geopolitical complexities, many outmoded considerations could be reexamined. Whether it’s improving sustainable development in industry, or prioritizing human needs in technological advancement, the need for emotional problem-solving is becoming more critical for addressing a wide range of societal needs.
Beginning with a teaching guide that catalogs effective play-in-learning techniques, this study hopes to inspire current and future faculty to help students succeed academically and develop a more humane perspective applicable to whatever career path they choose.
“Things are going to get rougher in the world if we don’t change our ways,” Liebenberg said. “So, what can we change at this university, and in our classes? We can teach our students to solve problems in a more holistic way, and help them use their emotions and intuitions for the greater good. Play helps us do that.”