teaching toolbox
taking flight

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

illustration by William BrownLetting students out from under your wing may be the best thing for them.

As students progress through college, they do a lot of maturing--both personally and in their understanding of engineering. Where once they needed and even expected constant guidance, as they near the end of their education and the beginning of their professional lives, they need to learn how to stand on their own. You can help them leave the nest by stepping back and letting them take more control of their education.

Of course, design projects and laboratory courses give students some measure of control, but they only go so far. Generally, students are presented with the problem instead of having to determine it on their own. And the problem is usually solvable--which is not always the case in the real world. For these reasons, something in addition to the usual design and laboratory model is needed. Industrial experience, such as co-ops or internships, is one way to help students develop a healthy, reality-based self-confidence and discover that they "can do this stuff." Regular--at least weekly--meetings with an industrial supervisor should be strongly encouraged, and students should also be required to reflect regularly in a journal on what they have learned and how they can improve.

Small group discussions sharing industrial experiences are also beneficial--using virtual groups for those who are geographically isolated. And remember: even graduate students--particularly international students who have not had significant industrial experience--will benefit from working in industry.

On-campus undergraduate research is another option, and can be done with groups of students or in a more structured research laboratory course. Students need meaningful activities that allow them to grapple with ill-defined problems without known solutions, which is typical in research. Students can work directly with a professor, or with a senior graduate student or a post-doc. The latter options have the added advantage of giving senior students a chance to mentor. They will also benefit from feedback from the professor and by reflecting on the experience. Elective lecture-style courses that include significant group projects can also help students learn how to learn. We have been successful with instructor-assigned rather than self-selected groups. The projects can be structured around general design problems, such as developing software for a problem related to the course; writing projects, such as writing a textbook chapter or developing a Web site on interesting technology related to but not covered in the course; or with only the most limited direction doing something useful that is related to the course.

To achieve the maximum benefit, projects need to be a major part--or even all--of a course, in terms of both grade and class time. In a moderate-sized class, the instructor should be able to meet with every group at least weekly during the regularly scheduled class period. This feedback will help students limit the project's scope, finish on time, and learn how to learn.

The result of project teaching can be a dynamic class that produces exciting projects. It can also mean a smaller workload for the instructor. Of course, a certain loss of control comes with giving more responsibility to students--the students may pick a project you know little about. We have been successful using open-ended projects with graduate students. For undergraduates, make sure to take them through a structured case study before letting them go off on their own, or you may find that some groups will fail. Ensuring that all of our graduates have at least one--and preferably several--experiences in learning (almost) without a professor will help produce engineers who can fly solo when the time comes.

For more teaching tips, visit the Teaching Engineering page at www.asee.org/publications/teaching.cfm.

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