PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
teaching toolbox
More Than Words

Give your lectures some punch by using hands-on experiences.

by Phillip Wankat
and Frank Oreovicz

There is a huge difference between practicing engineering and studying to be an engineer. Students learn more science and mathematics than is actually used in practice, and do more theoretical calculations than most practicing engineers. Perhaps engineering education has evolved this way because it is harder to learn math and science on the job than it is to pick up practical skills.

More than WordsBut teaching that is all theory and has no practical applications gives students the wrong impression of what most engineers do. To bring them closer to engineering practice, all engineering courses—even lecture-intensive ones—should include applications of theory and some hands-on activities.

Hands-on activities motivate students, particularly those who—although they may not our best students—will become outstanding engineers. They also help us "teach around the cycle" in Kolb's learning theory, tie theories to the real world, and provide students experience with experimentation and design.

The simplest way to introduce hands-on activities is to bring real objects to class and pass them around. If you are discussing packing materials, or different types and sizes of aggregate, bring in a few different samples. Construction materials come alive when the students can see and handle them in class. Similarly, bring in tools or cut-away valves to show how mechanisms work, because calculations take on new meaning when students know what something looks and feels like.

You can also schedule one or two brief field trips during the semester. Take the sophomores to see the senior lab. Visit labs in other departments, the computer repair shop on campus, campus radio/TV studio, university power plant, or sewage treatment plant. Go look at storage tanks for liquid nitrogen and at local water and steam distribution systems. Construction is always occurring on campus, and can also be part of the educational experience.

Do mini-experiments or demonstrations in class and involve students in the measurements. For example, first estimate and then measure the temperature of gas as it leaves a can of spray deodorant. Let students measure sedimentation velocities by passing around sealed tubes containing different solids and fluids. Plot the temperatures of two identical cups of coffee immediately after adding cream to one, and to the other after it sits for a few minutes. Ask and then measure what happens if one of the cups is covered with a piece of paper. Illustrate statistics by asking what the probability is that two students in the class will have the same birthday. Run a computer simulation in real-time, and let students change the conditions. Have student teams develop assembly lines to make objects from paper or Legos.

You can also have students do observations or experiments as part of their homework. Ask them to make site inspections of proposed routes for a new highway, study stream patterns at a local brook, search for all systems in their rooms that use microprocessors, or determine how a toilet works. They can study the freezing of water from radiation heat losses by setting out Styrofoam cups at night in different locations such as open fields, next to buildings, and under trees. Be inventive—the possibilities are endless.

For more involved work, do hands-on activities as course projects (see February 2000 Prism). Student teams can develop a hands-on experiment using normal household items that use principles taught in class—with your supervision and approval, of course. Safety, creativity, teamwork, and communication skills are natural concomitants of this experience.

By doing just a little "out-of-the-box" thinking to incorporate hands-on teaching, you can enrich the education of your students—even in those "boring" lecture classes.

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