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New course prepares engineers to be better educators


Student Matthew Glockling, left, works with peer tutor Michael Gieseke in Cara Poor’s CE 215 Mechanics of Materials class.

The first day of teaching for many professors is like jumping into the deep end of the pool - without swimming lessons. University professors are not required to, and often do not, have training in education.

Shane Brown, a civil engineering professor, is working to improve teaching methods in engineering classes. He is preparing students to do the same by teaching a class tailored to engineering education.

The sciences, and particularly engineering, have significant recruitment and retention problems. At the same time, there is a dramatic need for engineers and, therefore, engineering educators to keep the United States a leader in technology, Brown said.

"Research on retention shows that teachers have a major role in students staying," he said.

Effective theories, methods

In his Engineering Teaching and Learning class, offered for the first time in spring 2010, Brown trains his students to become educators who will help students learn and stay in engineering programs.
"There are issues of teaching and learning that are specific to engineering disciplines," Brown said.

The course shows the students effective engineering teaching methods, including teaching and learning theories. The students prepare a teaching module that they present to the class several times for evaluation. They also come up with their own teaching philosophy.

The class includes critically examining both other students and previous instructors with self-made rubrics.
"As many doctoral students as we have, there is a demand for some teaching preparation," Brown said. "There's a strong likelihood that a majority of those students will go into college teaching."

This semester, 10 students - including civil engineering, computer science, chemical engineering and an education major - are taking the class, which is an elective, Brown said.

Peer tutoring shows success

This teaching course is not Brown's only foray into engineering education. He has worked on an in-class peer tutoring program, in which students who already have taken a course come into the classroom once a week to assist students in active learning exercises.

"There are piles of research showing tutoring effectiveness," Brown said. "Having social resources in the class that have been trained in the material gives students the opportunity to ask questions and be successful."

Brown and others are working on a study of university classrooms with peer tutoring to see the effects on learning, self-efficacy and classroom environment. Preliminary findings show that 85 percent of students want peer tutoring in their other classes.

Misconceptions affect performance

He also works on a three-year grant program that provides an "engineering math boot camp" for incoming freshman in the weeks before their first semester. The four-week course is in its first year but already is showing dramatic results in improving self-efficacy, a determining factor in future success, Brown said.

A large part of Brown's research includes understanding student misconceptions and their impacts. His studies reveal persistent misconceptions that mechanical and materials engineering students have about engineering concepts, such as stress and load. The students have difficulty reconciling their observations with the instruction, which impacts their understanding, Brown said.

He wants to continue the study into the workplace to see what the impact is after college.

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