ASEE Prism Magazine

Engineers at Play
A little levity can go a long way in your classes.

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

“Fun and games? Harrumph! Engineering is serious business and students aren't here to have fun!”
Sound familiar? Many engineering professors no doubt feel this way. Yes, the work is hard, but we also believe that learning is more effective if students (and professors) have some fun during the process. An appropriate joke or pun eases tension. Comic strips on an overhead project can reinforce the explanation of a technical concept. Short brain teasers or creative games provide breaks in lectures.

Illustration by Lung-I LoPerhaps even more effective, though, are more elaborate activities that can become events students long remember.

For example, a name game is a great icebreaker to kick off a class. Have the students stand in a circle with you. Start by saying your name, then have the student next to you say your name and her name; the second student says your name, the first student's name, and his name, and so on until the circle is complete, at which point you try to say everyone's name. You, of course, will have the toughest job, but the students will greatly appreciate, and enjoy, your struggle. This works well with up to about 40 students. The game gets difficult quickly, so allow students to help each other.

Students also like games based on quiz shows such as “Jeopardy!”, or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” or board games, like “Trivial Pursuit.” Have student teams develop questions and answers based on the course content. (Multiple choice works well because it limits arguments.) Sort the questions into categories by subject or difficulty, and have teams compete for prizes (candy works well) and glory. You'll be surprised at how hard many students will work on this seemingly silly exercise, which will actually teach them quite a bit. Though answering the questions is more of a memory skill (the “knowledge level” of Bloom's taxonomy), developing the questions requires other cognitive skills.

Modified debates are useful for topics without clear-cut answers, such as global warming. Or you can let groups try to convince the class that their site for a sewage treatment plant or their design of a widget is the best. Use debate rules—both sides presenting arguments and counter-arguments, strict timing, no personal attacks, use of logical arguments—to keep the debate under control. As with the quiz shows, teams always want to win, so they will prepare.

Develop a whodunnit that requires knowledge of course material to solve. For example, a hot pie is removed from the oven and placed on a counter to cool; 15 minutes later a large piece is missing. Five students have been seen walking into and out of the kitchen, with each there long enough to be the culprit. Ask students to determine who could not have eaten the pie because it would have been too hot. Scenarios are limited only by your creativity.

Role playing can also help students learn in engineering classes. Students in design or laboratory courses often take on the roles of company engineers, but the project becomes more realistic if money (not the real stuff, of course) is involved and the students have to pay for laboratory time and for the time of a consultant (you).
Another motivating strategy is contests. These can be long term, involved projects such as developing a solar car or an experiment for NASA's “vomit comet,” or short term such as an egg drop or building a Lego robot. Teams build a product and then compete in testing their creations.

Finally, a generic project can have student teams develop a homework problem that creatively applies engineering concepts to novel situations. Grade the problem and solution first on correctness (B or C level) and then creativity (to earn an A). Encourage the students to do something out of the ordinary for their oral presentations. The most memorable one that we have seen was a rap presentation.

Include one or two of these activities during the semester for variety and to serve as a pleasant memory of the course. Remember: An occasional light moment could keep students from having fun at your expense when they fill out your teacher evaluations!

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Franic Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school.

More Teaching Toolbox articles - Research, Teaching, On Campus, Calendar, Marketplace