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Hands-on approach spurs better learning

By : Anita Knopp Doll

Mechanical Engineering Professor Roy McGrann displays the pointy-nosed car designed by students for a national competition. The car took second and was recently featured in the publication Prism.
Developing multi-media science projects for fourth graders, designing special equipment for people with handicaps and making robot kits out of recycled AOL promotional CDs are just some of the ways that the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science is teaching undergraduates the engineering basics.

Such hands-on approaches are key to making learning student focused and successful, faculty members told the University Council during a special presentation on innovative undergraduate programs at its November 21 meeting.

Provost Mary Ann Swain said the campus has long valued creative approaches to undergraduate learning, which have included such efforts as the Discovery Program and the honors capstone project.

Most students come to college as skilled, passive learners, said Wayne Jones, who among other responsibilities directs the Center for Learning and Teaching, which oversees many of the initiatives. “Students are prepared to sit in class, listen to lectures, take notes and regurgitate what they’ve learned on exams,” he said.

Jones said the challenge for faculty is to put students at the center of their learning, with the responsibility and ability to take control of how they learn.

“Student-centered learning puts faculty in the uncomfortable position that requires them to rethink their teaching approach,” Jones said.

Through the Institute for Student-Centered Learning, faculty can share strategies on how to engage students even in large lecture classes and identify funding opportunities for innovative projects.

More than a third of the faculty have participated in two-day workshops and brown bag programs on student-centered learning. “We are trying to change the teaching culture, one group at a time,” Jones said. The Council also got a sampling of student-centered learning from Watson faculty Sharon Fellows and Roy McGrann.

Fellows, acting director of the division of engineering discovery and design, teaches freshmen engineering design, which seeks to engage burgeoning engineers with hands-on projects. In the past, students have designed and built multimedia science projects for fourth graders, assistive devices for handicapped clients and chicken coops for a Guatemalan women’s cooperative. A special end-of-the-year challenge requires students to move a ping-pong ball around a large square without touching it or letting the ball touch the ground.

A similar hands-on approach is used in the senior engineering course taught by McGrann, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, where students create robot kits for middle and high school students using discarded AOL CDs.

McGrann said students are also encouraged to participate in a variety of competitions. A Watson team last year won a regional competition for its micromouse, a robot that was required to successfully learn to navigate a maze. Another sophomore team earned second place in a national competition for its model car capable of navigating a course.

That team is now turning its attention to the highly competitive Solar Car Challenge. Over the next two years, the team hopes to design a full-sized car capable of traveling hundreds of miles on solar energy. Since part of the challenge is to find corporate sponsors, McGrann said the team is enlisting the help of School of Management students.

“We’re following the students’ interest,” McGrann said. “When they see the engineering principles applied, they learn much better.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08