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Engineering News Fall 2014

Robert Marks (left) helps with an experiment during the teachers' workshop.

Robert Marks (left) helps with an experiment during the teachers' workshop.

Teaching the Teachers

It's a common problem: you go to a workshop, learn some exciting new methods for doing what you do in a more innovative and effective way, but when you step back into your workaday world, you find the changes you'd like to make require too much work, so the ideas and intentions are pushed aside.

The same thing can happen to university professors who try to integrate new methods into an "old-school" lecture style of teaching; even if they had time to redevelop a class, trying out new methods in front of students can be intimidating. So last summer, in an effort to turn intentions into successes, the School of Engineering incentivized faculty to learn and put into practice some new teaching techniques. The plan: faculty would attend teaching workshops and practice sessions and would receive supplemental pay to rework one of their own courses and implement it in the coming year.

Partnering with SCU's Faculty Development Program, participants attended a two-day workshop to see how technology could enhance learning in and out of the classroom. They also learned how to write effective learning objectives and how to reinforce concepts through "active learning." A supplemental workshop, devoted specifically to engineering, included a demonstration class led by master teacher Dr. Allen Estes, head of the architectural engineering department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. In the demo, Estes played music, got people out of their seats to participate in an experiment, called on each class member by name, and kept everyone engaged in the learning process—giving the professors a perfect example of how they could run their own classes.

Participants were then given time to rework one of their classes before reconvening to practice teaching in front of their peers; their performance was videotaped and written assessments were provided. After a few days of tweaking based on the assessment, they taught for each other again, and were once more videotaped and assessed. Participants agreed that the demo class and practice sessions were crucial components in the workshop's efficacy.

Robert Marks, mechanical engineering academic year lecturer, put his knowledge to use immediately, adjusting how he taught thermodynamics during the summer session. Rather than trying to implement all the new techniques at once, Marks started with creating clear learning objectives and building activities into his classes. "I found I was able to cover more information by adding activities, and student learning improved. For the first time, they were all immediately able to understand one of the concepts that has traditionally been a stumbling block for at least half the class." Marks also now incorporates both equations and graphical illustrations in his board notes to address students’ different learning styles. "It was a very productive workshop," he said; "there are a lot of things to work on, a lot of techniques to perfect, but the tools really are helping me to improve my teaching. Much of what took place in a traditional classroom still goes on, but adding a demonstration, calling on students more often, and implementing some of these changes definitely makes a difference and changes the mood in the classroom."

Education, Engineering
Robert Marks, Teaching the Teachers