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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY:  ‘PATCH AND PRAY’ - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
FEATURE: GM SHIFTS GEARS - BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EYE ON THE WORLD - BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Thinking Simple - HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Don’t Overlook Industry - By DONALD A. KEATING & EUGENE M. DELOATCH

TEACHING TOOLBOX
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Knowledge Builders - WITH ‘ELECTRIC PICKLES,’ SPACE-SHUTTLE TILES AND OTHER ATTENTION-GRABBING STRATAGEMS, COLLEGE AND GRADUATE STUDENTS SEEK TO INSPIRE A YOUNG GENERATION OF POTENTIAL ENGINEERS. BY BARBARA MATHIAS-RIEGEL
JEE SELECTS: The Habit of Learning - SCOTT JIUSTO AND DAVID DIBASIO
ON THE SHELF: Our Town, Our World - ROBIN TATU


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TEACHING TOOLBOX: JEE SELECTS: The Habit of Learning - SCOTT JIUSTO AND DAVID DIBASIO  

A WPI study explores whether experiential education produces self-directed students.

Academics often “teach their research,” but few “research their teaching,” at least formally, for a host of good reasons, not least being the investment required to become conversant in theories and methodologies outside one’s primary academic community. However, with rapid change in the practice of engineering spurring new educational requirements and approaches to teaching, there is ample opportunity and need for those interested in educational research to provide insight into effective pedagogy.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), much of our teaching is connected with the Global Perspective Program, an experiential learning program that has third-year students conducting intensive, interdisciplinary research projects for sponsoring organizations in Puerto Rico, Thailand, Australia, Namibia, England and other places worldwide. The goals of the program are ambitious, among them developing student capacity to research real, open-ended challenges at the interface of technology and society and in the process to develop capacities for teamwork, written and oral communication, critical thinking and cross-cultural appreciation and collaboration.

CHOOSE JEEA large cohort of some 350 global program student participants per year provides ample opportunity to better understand this primarily inductively-taught, constructivist learning process. We recently completed research assessing whether the program effectively develops student capacity in a number of these areas so as to prepare them to become self-directed, lifelong learners (SDLL).

The research process generated insight into educational programming and research methodology, and helped us see new opportunities as teachers to support student development.

Anything as complex and inherently prospective as student capacity for SDLL raises methodological challenges. We addressed these challenges through a triangulated research protocol involving two widely used instruments for student self-assessment of learning and growth, and one instrument based on independent faculty review of student work.

The results suggested strong student development on key SDLL-related capacities. However, some indicators were less emphatic than others, depending on the instrument. One concern is that some highly self-directed learners entering the program are at risk for regression, as may be students at non-English-speaking locations. Because self-directed and life-long learning are complex psycho-social phenomena, and because our triangulated research strategy depended on three overlapping but not directly comparable methods, divergent findings might result from how the tests were administered, how SDL is operationalized in each, or both.

The results raised important questions about the relationships among our ambitious learning goals, student preparation, context, sojourn length, persistent effects, and program structure. The results have implications for assessing the effectiveness of innovative educational programs designed to meet non-technical learning objectives that are increasingly recognized as essential elements in engineering education.

The research has also contributed to changes in how we prepare and advise students through their project experience. For one, the possibility that intensive, cross-cultural, open-ended project work might, for a few students, reduce their confidence in undertaking self-directed learning is something we knew was possible from other research.This concern sensitized us to the more general need for helping students process their experiences after the projects have ended.

Given the uniqueness of the experience for students and the many ways in which we hope they will grow—including in areas like “critical thinking” that may be difficult for students even to recognize—we believe there is valuable student learning and development potential to be had from relatively small investments in such post-project reflective activities as structured conversations and short introspective essays. In implementing such strategies, we expect also to generate new questions and devise new, practical ways to continue educational research that complements our other academic pursuits.

Scott Jiusto is assistant professor of geography in Interdisciplinary and Global Studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. David DiBiasio is associate professor and department head of Chemical Engineering at WPI. This article is adapted from “Experiential Learning Environments: Do They Prepare Our Students to be Self-Directed, Life-Long Learners?” in the July, 2006 JEE.

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American Society for Engineering Education