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ADVANCES FROM AEE - Innovations in Education Practice

ADVANCES FROM AEE - Innovations in Education Practice

Online in Reverse

Students generate and

solve problems based

on videos they select.

By Matthew W. Liberatore, Andrew W. Herring, and Charles R. Vestal

YouTube Fridays is a popular program used in introductory engineering thermodynamics classes at the Colorado School of Mines as one effective means of engaging students in active learning using popular new media tools.

Today, most students in higher education have grown up with access to computers, the Internet, and many other daily use electronics. As digital natives, most believe their engineering education should be as personalized as their Facebook page or iPod’s playlist. At the same time, the advent of for-profit, online-only universities, as well as free online resources, is changing the accessibility of higher education. Professors strive to keep up by exploring the uses of online resources, such as screencasts – mini digital lectures that can be posted to a course website to allow students to watch an instructor step through relevant examples. Another way to interact effectively with today’s students is to integrate their habits into the classroom, through texting, wikis, or social media.

While such approaches can be innovative, they are still strongly instructor-centric, with the professor continuing to dictate the “new” content. Larger learning gains have been demonstrated using active-engagement and student-centered pedagogies instead of traditional teacher-centric techniques, such as lecturing. In addition, recent findings show that vision trumps the other senses in creating short- and long-term memory. Therefore, the YouTube Fridays approach, which engages sophomore engineering students in searching for, identifying, watching, and translating YouTube videos, offers a helpful pedagogical model.

In the several pilot studies conducted in the introductory engineering courses employing YouTube Fridays, students were assigned to find, present, and discuss online videos that support important class concepts, such as phase behavior, energy balances, and convective heat transfer. The students also created and solved homework problems based on the activity within the video, giving them the opportunity to engage in problem solving on open-ended, course-related questions. These problem sets were typically “engineering estimates,” requiring students to estimate one or more important values. Example estimates include calculating the amount of energy stored in bacon, which, in the video, is seen being turned into a torch, or determining the heat from combustion of the cream of a Cadbury egg. In one pilot study, both videos and problems were posted online, and student groups, given a set amount of time for the work, posted their solutions to be shared and discussed by the group.

The challenge of determining whether a video is fact or fiction became a popular theme of student-directed YouTube Fridays. The video “Big Water Slide + Jump!” for example, featured an individual going down a slip-n-slide ramp, flying through the air, and landing in a kiddie swimming pool. The student-authors posed the problem of whether this outcome was feasible based on conservation of energy principles – or was the video a fraud? Based on their estimations (mass of the individual, height of the slide, angle of the ramp), team members used a projectile analysis obtained from Wikipedia to calculate the distance the individual would travel and ultimately concluded that the video was a fraud. Several months later, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters also attempted to experimentally prove or disprove the same YouTube video. A comparable slide was built, tested, and determined to be fake.

The course has proved to be a fun, student-led activity that reinforces concepts. In student evaluations, more than 40 percent of the class thought YouTube Fridays helped them learn the course material, while a majority felt they gained a better understanding of the course topic of thermodynamics. A majority could relate thermodynamics to real-world phenomena and feel confident solving engineering estimate problems. The technique subsequently has been adapted for use in courses in a variety of areas at the School of Mines, including thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, and heat transfer.


Andrew W. Herring and Matthew W. Liberatore are associate professors and Charles R. Vestal is a teaching professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. This is excerpted from “YouTube Fridays: Student-led Development of Engineering Estimate Problems” in the Winter 2012 Advances in Engineering Education. Links to the hundreds of student-selected videos are compiled regularly at

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