New courses redefine first-year engineering

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The shift: Flipped classroom encourages application and interaction

In a first-year engineering class, news arrives that a UFO has crashed off Vancouver Island, spreading debris everywhere. In just four weeks, students are tasked to design, build, and test a functional claw able to pick up the debris. Interactive activities such as this make up the core of APSC 100 and 101, two newly designed courses in the Faculty of Applied Science. The courses are a response to a first-year curriculum that left students unexcited and disconnected with the engineering profession. Through a major redesign, these new introductory courses not only teach students fundamental engineering concepts, but also how to think and communicate like an engineer.

The redesign

“We wanted to give students an experience where they get to understand what engineering is all about,” said Peter Ostafichuk, professor of teaching and chair of first-year engineering.

Students previously reported that they left their first year without understanding what an engineer does or their role in society. Ostafichuk and his team led an extensive consultation process with students, faculty, staff, and engineers about what the new curriculum should include.

According to Jim Sibley, director of the Centre for Instructional Support in the Faculty of Applied Science, the team took a step back to really examine learning outcomes and the practical experiences students need. “That’s when we got to those more fundamental things about [how to] act, think, and communicate like an engineer,” Sibley explained.

With help from a Large Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) grant, APSC 100 and 101 were created. The courses, which began in fall 2015, each have four sections with approximately 220 students. Students also take part in smaller design studios, with roughly 60 students per section.

Through seven modules and associated projects, the courses cover a variety of topics, including the roles and responsibilities of an engineer, sustainability, and the application of scientific principles. But, according to Ostafichuk, rather than focusing on one topic or discipline, the courses aim to show how design, teamwork, sustainability, and communication are all embedded together. To do so, the courses utilize a variety of new teaching strategies.

Teaching strategies

 Flipped classroom

“Previously there was a lot of class time spent delivering content, and we’ve really flipped it so that content comes outside, and the classroom is now much more interactive,” Ostafichuk said.

The team created a series of short videos using Articulate Storyline, an interactive eLearning software tool. Students watch two to three videos each week prior to class. Self-test questions periodically pop up throughout the videos, and students must answer correctly before proceeding. Ostafichuk explains that the contact time in class can then be focused on applying the concepts learned in the videos.

The videos also act as the main source of material for students. “We’re structuring the videos in a way that they’re there to introduce a new topic to students, but they’re also there as a study resource as students work through the course,” explained Ostafichuk. “Essentially…they replace the textbook. They are the content source, the study guides.”

Team-based learning

Having completed the videos and self-tests prior to class, students spend the majority of class time working in small teams. The group work gives students the opportunity to discuss and apply course concepts with their peers. One activity students do in class is a multiple choice test completed in small teams using Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) scratch cards. The cards are a type of “scratch-and-win” scoring sheet, where each question has a row of boxes, and students scratch off the box they think corresponds to the correct answer. Teams get four points if they answer the question correctly on the first scratch, two on the second scratch, one on the third scratch, and zero on the fourth scratch.

Sibley emphasized that the cards are meant to encourage collaboration and discussion within groups. “The conversation is about which information did you use to make your decision, how did you make your decision. It’s not about [what] the right answer is,” he said.

Application activities

In design studios, students work through activities in teams to further apply their knowledge and gain practical experience. The projects require students to look at a problem, the needs, and the stakeholders involved. Projects are also designed to be socially meaningful and purposeful.

In one example of a class activity, students design and build a cardboard chair suitable for Maasai schoolchildren in Eastern Africa. The Maasai people are semi-nomadic and often have inadequate furniture in schools. The cardboard chair must be locally sourced, sustainable, and easy to acquire, as well as lightweight and compact so that schoolchildren can take the chairs with them as they travel.

Projects like these, Ostafichuk said, give students necessary hands-on experience. “They develop a lot of skills that an engineer needs, [such as] being able to work in a team and make complicated decisions.”

Peer review and evaluation

To learn from their peers, students give and receive anonymous feedback. Students are asked to reflect on changes they would make to their projects in the future based on what they’ve seen in their peers’ work and the feedback they received. Teammates are also asked to evaluate each other’s contributions using the online peer evaluation system iPeer.

Lessons learned

The redesign went more smoothly than the team anticipated, but they still learned a great deal from the project, including what students respond well to.

“I thought they would respond positively to flashy videos,” Ostafichuk said. “What they actually responded well to was thoughtfully prepared, narrated PowerPoint. It didn’t have to have high production value as long as it was well done. In preparing a PowerPoint narration, making sure audio was cleaned up, removing all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’—that kind of attention to detail they picked up on. They responded well to having information presented clearly and concisely.”

Given the size of the classes, the team also realized the importance of creating a consistent experience for all students. One method they used was to develop a playbook with phrases, vocabulary, and messages to ensure that instructors were using the same language and reinforcing the same themes throughout the week.

The impact

The feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive. More than 90 percent of students agreed that they have a clear sense of what engineers do and are excited about the profession.

“I think we’ve created a more dynamic course for students,” Ostafichuk said. “They use their time more effectively. They’re developing a lot of competencies they wouldn’t otherwise. In class now, there’s a lot of discussion, there’s teamwork, there’s interaction with professors, whereas before it was content delivery. In flipping the classroom, we’ve created a more meaningful, engaging, and fun learning experience for students.”

Sibley added that students gain much more practical engineering experience. “A lot of times, these are students that have never had tools in their hands, these are students who may have never programmed a computer.”

“What I suspect,” Sibley said, “is we’re going to see students who fundamentally understand more about what engineering really is, which is design, difficult decision making, being comfortable with uncertainty, and managing uncertainty. I think they will be much better creative problem solvers because they’re not looking for the black and white answer, because they realize it doesn’t exist.”

What’s next

Now in the second year of the project, the team is continuing their work on the courses and looking to improve them based on feedback from the first year. Student feedback was solicited at the end of every module, and the project team met with class representatives and the Engineering Undergraduate Society for additional suggestions.

The team is also now looking at how they can bridge non-engineering courses, such as math, physics, and computer science, with the engineering practice courses. The aim is to give students a more comprehensive first-year experience. Ostafichuk explains, “We’re looking for synergies that happen between courses, where a student would learn a particular skill or topic, and we’re looking to bridge that over to APSC 100 and 101. We’re currently identifying where those synergies exist, and how we can create the handshakes that happen between those courses.”