Science / Technology and Health

A New Way of Teaching

Written by Mike Thee

December 11, 2013

campus walkway in front of the Bannan Science and Engineering building

With support from an National Science Foundation grant, four SU faculty are redefining how engineering education is delivered.

Seattle University's professors have long been recognized for being not only great teachers but pioneers in developing innovative approaches to student learning. Now, with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), four faculty members are developing a new way of delivering engineering education that promises to be emulated nationally.

The $171,306 NSF grant supports a project by mechanical engineering associate professors Teodora Shuman and Greg Mason, Kathleen Cook, associate professor of psychology, and mechanical engineering lecturer Yen-Lin Han (pictured clockwise from top left). Their goal is to improve self-directed student learning and problem-solving skills while ensuring that students have a strong grasp of the theory and concepts that are fundamental to engineering education.

To do so, they will fuse two notable pedagogical models that have emerged in recent years: the inverted classroom in which professors teach lectures online so that class time can be used for more collaborative, active learning; and project based learning in which students learn the subject matter while solving a real engineering problem. This combination of the inverted classroom and project based learning is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, of its kind.

Mason, Shuman and Cook are designing the class. Han will teach the course. Her students will use their time in class to tackle real-life problems confronting industry partners such as Amazon, an HVAC firm (FSI Consulting Engineers) and a medical device company (Spiration, Inc.). It's a significant departure from the linear, lecture-based mode by which engineering has traditionally been taught.

"In the past, you've had your textbook, you've had your lecture and you hand out homework," says Shuman, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

With project based learning, Mason goes on to elaborate, "The problem provides context for student learning. "We start with the big picture and work our way down." 

"By solving these problems, students will be prepared for the real-life engineering they will be asked to do in their engineering careers," says Shuman. 

This all sounds good, but what about the theory the students need to tackle the problems? How will they learn the concepts so critical to finding solutions if most of the class time is spent on the problem itself?

That's where the inverted classroom comes in. Mason and Han will create videos that students will view online as their "homework." They will then bring that knowledge into the classroom to help create real-world solutions to such challenges as designing medical devices that clear blockages in arteries without producing potentially harmful heat, to cite just one example of a project they will be working on.

There's good reason to believe the inverted classroom/project based learning combination will greatly improve student learning. Mason, after all, has been teaching an inverted course since 2011, which has yielded positive student outcomes. Likewise, the College of Science and Engineering's senior design projects have enjoyed a long track record of success in giving students meaningful, real-world learning experiences. 

To test the hypothesis, Mason, Shuman and Han are collaborating with Cook, a social psychologist with vast experience in cognitive and behavioral studies as well as quantitative research. 

Cook describes her role as the "bread around the sandwich," explaining, "I'm involved on the front-end with the design of the class, and then after the data have been collected to make sure we're assessing it properly." In between, Han will teach the course in both traditional and inverted/project based learning formats.

For Mason, Shuman and Cook, this is just the latest in a long history of collaborations on subjects related to innovative approaches to pedagogy. Perhaps most notably, the cross-disciplinary trio has co-authored two highly regarded papers, including "Inverting (Flipping) Classrooms-Advantages and Challenges," which received the Best Paper award at the 2013 American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition in the Mechanical Engineering Division. This followed their paper on experimental design lab, "Novel Approach to Conducting Labs in Introduction to Thermodynamics Course," which received the Best Paper award at the 2012 American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition in the Energy Conversion and Conservation Division and was selected to the top five papers in the conference.

Being immersed in quantitative analysis, Cook says she feels she has as much in common with Mason, Shuman and Han as with her psychology colleagues. "It's been great," she says of the collaboration.

If the results from the NSF-funded project are similar to Cook's analysis of the inverted class Mason has already been teaching, the four professors will again get the attention of other engineering faculty throughout the country. And once again, Seattle University will be seen as a leader in helping to make good teachers even better.