Innovative Digital Approach to Class Could Be the Future of Engineering Education

“Flipped class” structure of mechanical engineering course increased pass rate and improved students’ learning experience.

(Image courtesy Cal Poly Pomona.)

(Image courtesy Cal Poly Pomona.)

There’s not much that engineers like more than improving and innovating just about anything they can get their hands on.  Turns out, this is also true for engineering education.  This was the goal of a years-long project led by a mechanical engineering professor at Cal Poly Pomona, Paul Nissenson, who transformed one mechanical engineering course from a traditionally lecture-heavy environment to a classroom full of interaction.

The changes centered around the production of more than 60 videos covering course lessons, supplemented by a cleverly designed online homework platform.  These combined to relay lesson information to students outside of class, which was previously taught during lectures.

“When we’re in class, I’m no longer at the board just talking,” Nissenson said. “The communication was a lot less one way. The students were kept accountable by the homework program and the videos were these great new resources.”

The experimental teaching methods produced a sharp escalation in the number of students who passed the bottleneck course that nearly one third of students typically have had to repeat in order to progress toward their degree.

In a typical section of fluid mechanics, a junior-level course for mechanical and civil engineering students, passing rates for classes taught in a lecture-heavy manner are approximately 60 to 70 percent. Nissenson taught three “flipped classes” utilizing newfound digital tools and obtained passing rates of 83, 84 and 94 percent.

“This course was easier for me, but not because the material was easy,” said junior John Kest, a mechanical engineering major. “The format of the class made it easier to learn and so much less stressful.”

Seven Cal Poly Pomona professors teamed up in 2015 in search of higher passing rates for the class. The five engineering faculty members helped produce the videos, while two psychology and sociology professors led a deep dive into the students’ response to the course’s alternative design.

Professor Paul Nissenson led a group of seven Cal Poly Pomona faculty who won the Online Learning Consortium’s Digital Innovation Award for their innovative changes to an engineering course.

Professor Paul Nissenson led a group of seven Cal Poly Pomona faculty who won the Online Learning Consortium’s Digital Innovation Award for their innovative changes to an engineering course. (Image courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona.)

It took Nissenson and fellow mechanical engineering professors Angela Shih, Henry Xue and Priscilla Zhao an entire summer in 2015 to storyboard a series of videos covering every topic in the course. Additionally, professor John Biddle allowed cameras into his classroom for an entire quarter to film every second of his fluid mechanics lecture series.

To ensure that students were viewing the videos their homework assignment, classes often began with a quiz on the video content. Most of the remaining class time was spent solving problems.

“The problems we worked on were things we might actually encounter on a real job in the future,” said junior Samantha Villagran, a mechanical engineering student. “If I was confused about anything, I could always go back and watch the videos. I’ve taken online classes before, but this was completely different than anything like that.”

Nissenson’s favorite time of class centered around team battles. Students were paired to solve problems – a plan designed to further increase the interactive nature of the class – and the rewards ranged from extra credit to a handful of candy.

“I want that interaction,” Nissenson said. “It gets very loud in the classroom, but you like that as a teacher.”

The videos were combined with an adaptive learning platform called Connect, which was developed by McGraw Hill Education, the maker of the textbook used in Fluid Mechanics. Connect provides students with an interactive online textbook that periodically tests their knowledge, as well as an online homework system that varies answers to its homework questions, preventing the use of solution manuals easily accessible via a google search.

The videos for fluid mechanics, which are housed on YouTube and accessible to the public as well as to the enrolled students, have generated more than 750,000 views. They are part of a growing repository of videos for the mechanical engineering department at Cal Poly Pomona that has more than 15,000 subscribers and 2 million views. The digitally friendly approach to engineering education is still the exception right now, but it might soon be the norm.

Additional insight into the success of the new course structure was evidenced by the elevated passing rate  and supported by positive feedback about the course in focus groups initiated by psychology and sociology professors Juliana Fuqua and Faye Wachs. The only two non-engineering professors on the team were specifically sought out to assess the students’ response to the new approach to classroom learning. Discussions within focus groups made up of students delved into aspects virtually never associated with engineering courses, including how students felt about not just the course, but themselves as a result of the course.

The results of this revamped course landed the team at the Online Learning Consortium’s award ceremony in November, where they won the award and $10,000 that will likely be invested to further the efforts to improve the fluid mechanics course.

“If you’re looking five or 10 years into the future,” Nissenson said, “I think the move toward the adaptive learning platform is going to be a lot more common.”

To learn more about innovative engineering education, check out Will Students Learn Better Using Robotic Interaction?

Source: Cal Poly Pomona