“This course material isn’t important to me” is a common thought among undergraduate engineering students in their early classwork. Rather than mere apathy, I view the lack of interest as an opportunity to challenge students by showing them how course material relates to their career goals. I especially enjoy the challenge of illustrating how understanding of fundamental concepts is vital to making critical engineering decisions. During my undergraduate studies, my favorite eureka moments arose whenever I realized how an abstract mathematical or scientific principle was connected to everyday phenomena. Hence, my goals as an instructor are to teach my students how to build the problem solving skills necessary to become lifelong learners and investigate the world around them, and to help each student experience a similar sense of joy that learning has brought to my life.
Active learning: Active learning methods are central to my teaching philosophy. In particular, problem-based learning methods have the power to craft lasting learning skills for engineers. To make time during a lecture period available for active learning exercises, portions of my courses will often be “flipped,” in that students will complete typical lecture activities prior to the class period. For example, if students are learning about heat flow, I will require them to review the fundamental physical and chemical processes at home the night before. During the class period, students will be asked to work through open ended problems related to everyday activities, such as how to efficiently insulate a cup of coffee. As students actively bridge their knowledge of everyday experiences and the scientific principles, they take control of their learning process. I have found that when students have a sense of ownership in their learning process, they are motivated to work harder to build the skills necessary to reach their goals.
Focus on fundamentals: In my pedagogical research, I have found that many students at the undergraduate level struggle to learn about advanced engineering processes when they have an incomplete understanding of requisite material. While students are ultimately responsible for correcting their own misconceptions, it is my duty as a teacher to help them uncover those misconceptions. Formative assessment tools such as concept inventories can help to identify potential weak spots in a student’s understanding of a particular concept or topic. I make use of assessment results to tailor lesson plans with the goal of strengthening student understanding early in a course. For example, students may have misconceptions related to first order calculus and how calculus principles are used to analyze particular systems. In this scenario, I would first ask the students to identify the mathematical principles that describe various processes. I would then assign additional problems that incorporate mathematical manipulations, and design additional formative assessments to provide ongoing feedback on students’ understanding of both calculus concepts and new topics covered in the course. This focus on basic principles helps to strengthen students’ confidence and ability to grasp new and complex engineering processes.
Case-based learning: Next generation engineers must develop an understanding of the broader social, economic, and environmental implications of their work. Introducing pedagogical elements such as historical context, decision-making problems and ethical problems into the classroom can aid in the development of engineers who see and treat engineering work as requiring complex decision making and social responsibility. One active learning technique is to create case-based simulation activities, in which a case study is presented with an ill-defined problem for students to consider. One case-based module I developed employs a case study on past technology adoption and environmental injustices related to stormwater management plans in Onondaga County, NY. Students predict what engineering designs will most directly affect their assigned stakeholder group and how each design solution may impact other groups. While case-based activities can be time intensive to develop, this method has been particularly effective in forging creative engineers with broad perspectives of how to approach engineering design.
Every research and teaching experience I have had brings new insight to my plans for the classroom. It is exhilarating to have candid conversations with students about how course subject material applies to universally complex problems, making for much richer teaching moments than I could have designed myself. In the future, I would enjoy teaching undergraduate courses in environmental and sustainable systems engineering, and graduate courses on technology adoption for sustainable urban systems. In addition, I would hope to collaborate with experts outside of engineering to develop interdisciplinary coursework on sustainable design concerns that intersect the public and private sectors.