Teaching Toolbox

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Learning Outside the Classroom

Industry experiences can fill in gaps that classroom teaching misses.

As we educate students in engineering fields, we should remember that most of them will be putting their degree to work in the real world. Implicit in real-world engineering is the need to deal with teams, economics, time constraints, safety, disparate personalities; the blending of disciplines, and solving problems that are not clearly defined. Experiential learning—including internships, co-operative education, and service learning—is a tremendous help in preparing students for this world and for demonstrating the importance of many of the "soft criteria" in ABET 2000. Such experiences are also effective because, when well designed, they use different learning principles than are typically encountered in the classroom. In general, students should be challenged but not so much that they cannot be successful. They need to be prepared for the experience and for receiving feedback, and for being held to high standards.

A Pudue University chemical engineering student gets on-the-job training in an industry lab.
More understanding of the learning process comes from David Kolb's model, which focuses on how individuals take in and process data. Kolb, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and an influential expert on learning cycles and experiential learning, holds that data can be accessed either externally through personal involvement, such as on the job (concrete experience, CE) or internally by drawing logical conclusions (abstract conceptualization, AC). Similarly, information can be processed either externally by doing things and seeing how they work (active experimentation, AE), or internally by examining the information from several angles and delaying action (reflective observation, RO).

Effective learning occurs when all four processes are used, which is known as teaching around the learning cycle. Unfortunately, professors tend to teach using only their favorite modes. Those who prefer AC and RO (known as assimilators) tend to lecture in a pendulum fashion, back and forth between data acquisition (AC) and processing (RO). This works great for students who are assimilators, not quite so well for divergers (who prefer CE and RO) and convergers (who prefer AC and AE), and is very difficult for accommodators (who prefer CE and AE). The concrete experiences and active experimentation which are the focus of experiential learning help the accommodators excel. Experiential learning also forces students, particularly the assimilators, to use learning skills they often ignore.

But students can also get "stuck" in this process swinging on the CE to AE pendulum. To avoid this, make sure that students reflect on their learning (RO) and include a little theory (AC). Reflection—whether through keeping a journal, or discussing experiences in a small group—is the most important element for rounding out nonclassroom learning. Experiential education in engineering is usually thought of as requiring large blocks of time—often an entire summer or semester—but service learning shows that there are short-term alternatives. Service learning can be incorporated into a three-credit course or even part of a course. An environmental engineering class could analyze the water quality of a local stream, or a design class could "adopt" a disabled child and build devices to help the youngster cope. These experiences will be richer if students work together in cross-disciplinary teams.

One final point: if you give academic credit for such experiences, you need to maintain academic control. To that end, grades should depend first on the learning that occurs and second on job performance. Thus, you should interact on a regular basis with students and their supervisors. Ideally, experiential learning gives students the chance to learn what it is like to work as an engineer. A few may discover that engineering is not a good career choice, but most become more excited about becoming engineers. By paying attention to the learning principles involved, you can ensure that the experiences will prepare students for engineering practice.

For more teaching tips, see www.asee.org/ publications/teaching.cfm.

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