ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
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- By Alice Daniel    

Sure, adding a touch of drama in the classroom is fun, but it can also help students learn.

When Col. Allen Estes wants to show his engineering students at West Point how cylindrical pressure vessels can fail due to hoop stress, he introduces an American tradition: the hot dog. "Have you ever noticed how a hot dog splits along the longitudinal axis?" he asks the class before he heads to the trash can and pulls out a wiener whose bun has been doused with green food coloring to make it look moldy. He takes a bite in front of a sea of shocked faces, then continues his explanation of hoop stress before handing out hotdogs and mustard to everyone.

In another engineering course, Estes begins the class in silence. "For me to not say a word is in itself dramatic," he says. He then lights a candle, pours some wine (not for consumption, of course), sniffs a flower, and asks the students what they did in the prior class. When they say analysis of trusses, he tells them he is there to introduce them to a higher level of study, to elevate them from the "mind-numbing work of analysis to the inherent beauty of design." Before the lesson begins, he reads a Walt Whitman poem that sings the praises of engineering design.

"Engineering is not always fun, and in many cases it's hard. In every class, we try to liven it up with something," says Estes, the director of the civil engineering division of the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy. "It keeps the students engaged and, quite honestly, it's more fun for me as an instructor. Sometimes it's pure entertainment and sometimes it is quite meaningful and important to the material that we're teaching."

Anyone who has ventured into academics knows that the teaching profession requires a certain element of drama in order to hold the attention of students. Joseph Lowman, author of "Mastering the Techniques of Teaching," states that "college classrooms are fundamentally dramatic arenas in which the teacher is the focal point, like the actor or orator on stage." But some engineering professors take this role to the nth degree. They see their lectures as performances, ones that use dramatic tension or suspense to ignite the students' interest.

Engineering is an ideal field in which to create drama in the class room, because it is very hands-on, says Elliot Douglas, an associate professor in materials science and engineering at the University of Florida. "If you care about your subject, it's relatively easy to translate that to the students. Just think about a rubber band. They don't know how cool a rubber band is!"

Douglas begins every class by playing music that is thematic to the topic he is covering. For instance, a discussion of chemical bonds might begin with music from a James Bond movie. He also brings his materials to class in a little red wagon. But the gimmicks are not what he relies on to make his classroom tick. "It makes it a little more interesting, but I think you can be effective dramatically without any of those gimmicks," says Douglas. "They may set me apart in some way, but when you talk about drama in the classroom, it's more in the way you present material."

Douglas says he is very interactive with the students by posing questions and giving them time to work out problems in class or by giving demonstrations. He approaches teaching as an actor would a script. "I tend to talk loud naturally, so I consciously make myself talk quietly for emphasis. I think about things in the way an actor does."

Robert Carpick, an assistant professor in the engineering and physics department at the University of Wisconsin, says he resorted to theatrical techniques after a challenging first semester of teaching. "I didn't feel satisfied with how things had gone. I felt myself getting frustrated and being self-critical when it came to the bored looks on students faces or people drifting off, not paying rapt attention to my fantastic lectures!"

Carpick did some research and learned that the typical attention span of a student is incompatible with a 50-minute lecture. In fact, several studies show that students' attention tends to wane after about 10 minutes. One study found that students could recall 70 percent of the first 10 minutes of a lecture but only 20 percent from the last 10 minutes. In order to make his class-time more productive and stimulating, Carpick decided to break up his lectures by integrating his life-long fascination with game shows into the classroom.

"I grew up watching bad Canadian game shows where the grand prize would be $20 or a free car rental for the weekend," says Carpick, who introduced "Who Wants to be a Mechanician?" to his statics and mechanics of materials class two years ago. The game is simple. When Carpick's lecture comes to a natural pause, he reaches into a bag with students' names and picks one student to answer a multiple-choice question. Drawing on the popularity of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" the game allows students to ask for help from the class or answer the question alone. If the student answers correctly without help, two cookies are rewarded. If help is given for the correct response, the student receives one cookie.

"The first time I tried it, I was amazed at how well it worked. Every single person would be paying attention in a class of 20," says Carpick, who now uses this technique in several of his classes. The game only takes five minutes, but it keeps students on their toes and reinforces concepts. At West Point, new instructors are required to go outside their comfort zone. They are invited to the Officer's Club, where they have to get up and sing a solo. "It really is a training event," says Estes. "It's not some fraternity hazing ritual. Getting up and singing is not comfortable. But we show them it's OK. No one is going to get hurt."

West Point also expects its instructors to use physical demonstrations to engage students in the classroom. This sometimes leads to a sense of one-upmanship when multiple sections of the same course are taught. "We know the cadets are going to talk about it," says Estes. "For the most part, they appreciate the fact that we're making the effort to make it more interesting."

For instance, when instructors teach the effect of the mass moment of inertia on moving bodies, they set up a race between two cylinders: Rolling Timber has a wooden shell with a steel core and Steel Wheel has a steel shell with a wooden core. The instructor asks students to place their bets on the "race of the century" and then just as the instructor places both cylinders at the top of a ramp, he or she will postpone the race and take about 15 minutes to explain mass moment of inertia. The instructor then builds up the drama at the racetrack again, but before releasing the cylinders, helps the students calculate who the winner ought to be. Just before class ends, the instructor yells "Go!" The race begins and the one with the steel core wins.

Perhaps the most exciting demonstration is the flaming golf ball catapult, which shows kinetics in action. The instructor begins the statics and dynamics class with a clip from the movie "Gladiator," where siege engine catapults are used to fire flaming pots of oil on the Barbarian warriors. The instructor then suggests calculating a predicted range for a golf ball fired from a model catapult. The calculations take most of the class period and timing is of utmost importance. "If you don't send that flaming golf ball down range at the end of class, you've really failed," says Estes. Before the bell rings, the instructor sports a devilish grin, coats the golf ball in lighter fluid, lights it, releases it, and sends it flying into the well placed garbage can (hopefully!).

West Point also teaches drama in the classroom at a summer teaching workshop called Excellence in Civil Engineering Education. (ExCEEd). "This is where we get our disciples, where we spread the word," says Estes. One graduate of ExCEEd, Elliot Douglas, says the workshop gave him a framework to understand and evaluate his teaching. As a mentor for the program, he says that professors will sometimes complain to him about having to "entertain" students. But Douglas tells them that drama in the classroom isn't primarily for entertainment purposes. "College teachers need to stimulate emotion," he says. "They need to transfer to the student their passion in the subject...In the classroom, drama is a means to stimulate interest, to show that you care about the subject and that the students should care about it."


Alice Daniel is a freelance writer living in Fresno, Calif. She can be reached at

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