CH EN 5960-002
- American Society for Engineering Education. 09/2022 - present. Position : Member.
Engineering is a fulfilling and important field, providing individuals with the opportunity to make a significant and positive impact on the world. Those who are trained in engineering will become lifelong learners and problem solvers, applying those skills to whatever they engage in. Engineers make a difference in the world, both by what they do, and by how they live their lives. I feel lucky to have found such an exciting and meaningful field, and I use engineering habits of mind both in my work and in my everyday life. I am an engineering educator to open up this fascinating world to many people from varied backgrounds.
There are several goals of an undergraduate education in Engineering. Our students should have good technical problem solving skills, be good communicators, be able to experiment and design to produce solutions that meet a need, and work collaboratively as a team. Different courses are designed to meet these intended outcomes to a greater or lesser extent and require a thoughtful approach to help students meet the primary goals of their education. Since I teach multiple courses, from lecture to laboratory, and from early undergraduate to upper division, I tailor the teaching methods I use to the level I am teaching and to the purpose of the course. For the purposes of this statement, I will primarily focus on the methods I employ to foster learning in a technical course, where learning new engineering concepts and applying them to solve complex problems is the primary objective.
For students to be good technical problem solvers, they have to be in good command of the concepts being taught. They need to have transitioned their knowledge from working memory, or short-term memory, to long-term memory. This transition is important for students of all ability levels and learning styles. I aim to build into my courses research-supported methods that promote linkage of information into long-term memory so that all learners benefit. Only when knowledge is learned and established within long-term memory can students draw upon that knowledge to solve complex problems that are unlike any they have seen before.
There are several methods I employ in order to facilitate this cognitive transition. First, I link the concepts to meaningful examples of why they are important and of utility in the world outside the classroom. Research has shown connections to greater meaning motivates students to avoid distractions as they study and to engage more deeply with the material. Meaning sets the stage for deeper learning.
Next, scaffolding (the instructional process of giving support to students to enhance learning and aid in skill development) is essential to promote students' conceptual understanding. I clearly outline the concepts we will be discussing during a class session, then connect new concepts to antecedent knowledge or discussed topics. When introducing new or complex concepts, I discuss analogies in everyday experiences, or ask students to come up with their own analogies. For example, when discussing feedback control in an automated system, I ask students to think about driving a car and how different operations in the automated system relate. Additionally, I model problem solving, demonstrating examples by a step by step process. During class, I regularly provide workshop problems to emphasize particular concepts for student groups to solve, while I am there as a resource for them. Before the end of class, I introduce a related homework problem and ask students to think about and describe the steps they would take to solve the problem. This gives me the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and help them see a clear direction and form a plan of action for completing the problem.
Active learning balanced with content delivery is key to helping students move concepts from working memory to long-term memory. During class, I break up lectures with opportunities for students to participate. For example, I will pose hypotheticals (“What would happen if ______ ?”), open ended questions (“Find examples of ______ in your everyday life”), or ask for next steps in a problem based on the concept just covered. I give students a few minutes to quietly think, then pair with another student and share their thoughts. This “think, pair, share” activity serves several purposes. It gives students opportunities for recall practice, where they have to pull understanding from memory. Research shows that this practice is one of the most effective ways to solidify linkages in memory. Pairing with another student and sharing their thoughts gives students a less threatening environment in which to have a discussion and build upon their understanding based on another’s thoughts. Sharing with the class then becomes easier and creates an environment where students are comfortable asking questions and discussing answers.
To assess students’ development of understanding throughout the course, I ask them to explain the concepts they used to solve homework problems, how those concepts are linked to other content in the course, and the limitations of the solution they found based on the assumptions they made in the solution process. In this way, I can see gaps in their understanding to reinforce in later lectures and discussions. In addition, this process helps the students further link the concepts in their long-term memory, as they contextualize the work they have done. Where possible, I give students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. I encourage exam re-works and report re-writes for an improved grade. This practice incentivizes students to look back, analyze what they did not understand, improves their understanding, and fills gaps in their knowledge.
All of this work of moving knowledge from working memory to long term memory where students can begin to show mastery and creativity with what they have learned takes time and consistent effort. I hold students accountable for their progress by giving regular assignments and feedback.
All of the efforts I have described above are also designed and performed in a way so that I can meet my personal goals when I teach in the undergraduate classroom. I want to improve students’ confidence, foster curiosity, provide an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions, and provide an environment that is inclusive, equitable, and fair. I make every effort to convey my own excitement about the subject matter, communicate in a good natured and approachable manner, and meet students where they are. Seeing all of this come together, there is no work I’d rather be doing than interacting in the classroom or lab with my students, preparing the engineers of tomorrow.