Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days

MSCI 100, a first year Management Engineering course taught by Professor Ken McKay, introduces students to the main concepts of the discipline in their first term. The course’s main goals are to introduce the core principles that students will apply throughout their undergraduate studies and to prepare them for their first co-operative education term.

The course was pedagogically redesigned based on including authentic self-directed learning, and providing students with opportunities to develop their professional skills (especially teamwork, project planning, time management and critical thinking). Professional Skills and Communication were taught within the context of the specific discipline as recommended in [1]. The overhauled course is composed of several activities/deliverables for students to experience multiple constructive failure-recovery cycles as a way to teach students the advantages of making mistakes [2].

In this blog post I will talk about the ‘case days’ experience, one of the cornerstones of the course that I helped plan and facilitate with the course’s teaching team. Three ‘case days’ were designed to provide an intense and deep learning experience regarding problem-solving, teamwork, and project management. On each case day, students, in teams, were given the case study at 8:30 am, their final product was due by 4:30 pm. There were no other courses, lectures, labs, or tutorials on these days. The requirements were vague, the problem was ill-defined, and the students were given ample opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Furthermore, not everything they needed to know had been taught in class and they had to teach themselves new material during these days. The students were expected to meet specific deadlines throughout the day and were given extensive rubrics. The student teams were assigned advisors (staff and faculty volunteers) who provided guidance throughout the day. The role of the advisors purposely diminished each case day. The teams eventually met requirements on their own, without any hand holding. Continue reading Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days

Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

How will students demonstrate learning? What types of Assessments will you use?

Last month I attended and presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association Conference that was held in McMaster University.  It was a wonderful learning experience that allowed all participants to connect with engineering educators not only from Canada, Continue reading Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

As soon as coffee is in your stomach… Ideas begin to move – Honore de Balzac–By Jason Grove

Coffee-Making_October-8-2014“I believe that I learned more about the machine and how… [it] actually works in more detail from that one activity… than I would ever have done had I just read somewhere about how a coffee maker works in some book.”
Have you ever considered what coffee is and how to brew the perfect cup? We invited over 1200 incoming engineering students to do just that in their first week of classes, in a “pilot” activity launching the Engineering Ideas Clinic. Intended to facilitate learning by exploration, students were first asked as a class to identify the safety hazards associated with using and then dismantling a coffee maker. This proved to be both effective—identifying many hazards that we instructors had missed—as well as “a fun and exciting way… to be introduced to WHMIS”.
Groups of students were then given either an electric drip machine or a Moka pot and asked to brew a “small amount” of coffee (usually interpreted as a full pot). Further instructions were not provided and, since a surprisingly small number of students are coffee drinkers when they arrive on campus, this caused some challenges. Where does the water go in the Moka pot? Which coffee goes in which machine? During brewing, groups were asked to consider the physical processes occurring in the machine and make a list of all the components they expected to find inside. This resulted in a number of points of contention, such as whether a drip machine must include a pump.
If this is coffee bring me tea; and if it is tea, bring coffee.* Perhaps fortuitously, the laboratory venue precluded any tasting of the resulting brews, but the groups moved on to consider what “coffee” is and its desirable characteristics, such as bitterness, acidity and colour. Characterizing coffee can be achieved as a combination of sensory perception—sight, smell and taste—and analytical measurement—we provided thermometers, pH probes and spectrophotometers.
With the coffee brewed and characterized, it was time to discover whether the guesses at the machine’s internal components were correct. While the classes differed in their zeal for disassembly (most of the machines could be re-assembled), some surprises were in store inside, such as the amount of empty space, the absence of a pump, the mystery object in one of the tubes (a one-way valve) and the single heating element serving double-duty as water and hot-plate heater. While the Moka pot was much easier to dismantle, figuring out its operation was usually more challenging. Groups prepared a sketch of the machine they had and used this to explain its operation to a group with the other machine.
Finally, the instructor brought the class back together for a rich discussion, ranging across how the machines work, measurement variability and error, communication with technical drawings, constraints and criteria for design, the concept of design specifications and answering questions such as “what is coffee?” and “how is the filter basket made?”. Led by their own inquiry and exploration, this activity provided students with an opportunity to consider what engineering design is and how it is underpinned by principles of physical science. In keeping with the spirit of the activity, I will leave the last words to the students:
“Learning how a common household object required various engineering concepts to design and construct really opened our eyes to how applicable our engineering education can be.”
“The lab was a great hands-on experience. It was very interesting to see the inner workings of coffee makers and the engineering design behind them. Hopefully we can have more labs like this one”
“The ChE 102 Coffee Lab was one of the best moments of 1A so far. I liked that we students finally got to experience a hands-on introduction to the world of engineering. Taking apart an everyday object and analyzing how different parts help the machine function as a whole was a fun way to apply engineering concepts that we’ve started learning about in class. I hope they do more of these hands-on labs since they’re a nice break from just lectures and theory.”

With thanks to Patricia Duong, Partho Mondal, Gerry Shebib, Inzamam Tahir and Geethan Viswathasan from the Engineering class of 2019 for allowing me to quote their comments on the coffee activity.
*This quote is sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though it appears to have been an old joke even in the mid-nineteenth century.

Integrated Testlets- What are they?–Samar Mohamed

Sample IF-AT card

Last month I attended the annual Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) 2014 Conference that was held in Queens University, Kingston. It was an excellent opportunity for me to learn from colleagues across Canada and exchange ideas with them. One of the workshops that attracted my attention was facilitated by Aaron Slepkov and Ralph Shiell from the Dept. of Physics at Trent University. In their workshop, Ralph and Aaron focused on their newly developed testing technique: “Integrated Testlet (IT)”. The presenters started by talking about the benefits of Constructed Response (CR) questions, a common term for questions where students must compose the answer themselves, and how these types of questions enable instructors to gauge their students’ learning. CR questions also allow instructors to give part marks to partially correct answers. The presenters also commented on the trend to switch from CR questions to Multiple Choice (MC) questions in the field of Physics due to increasing class size and the resulting contraints on time and personel resources. However, traditional MC questions don’t allow for part marks or, more importantly from a pedagogical standpoint, enable the instructors (and students) to know where the students went wrong. The integrated testlet method is different in that not only does it allow the students to keep trying each MC question until they get the correct answer, “answer-until-correct question format” enabling the granting of partial marks, but student do not leave the question without knowing the correct answer enabling them to move on to the next integrated question. The method presented changed complex CR physics questions into IT questions. The IT method is based on a traditional testlet, which is a group of MC questions that are based on a common stem (or scenario). In an IT, an answer to a question (task) leads to the next task procedurally, and in this way the students’ knowledge of how various concepts are connected can be assessed. Therefore, items in an integrated testlet are presented in a particular sequence in which the answer for part (a) is used to solve for part (b) and so on. The IT rely on the use of an “answer-until-correct response format”, where the students can keep on making selections on a MC question until the correct response is identified and can be used in subsequent related items. The presenters used the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) to allow the students to do several attempts and to get part marks for their response. For more information about IF-AT cards, see Epstein Educational Enterprises website. Moreover, for a sample application of the IF-AT cards at the University of Waterloo see the CTE blog by my colleague Mary Power, The faculty of Science Liaison. In their published paper, the presenters explain the method they have used to transform CR questions to IT questions and analyzed the students’ responses for both question types; it is a very useful and interesting reading that I recommend for instructors thinking about this method.

Engineering Integrative Learning Community

id_26_680When our students make connections between their learning experiences within a whole program of study, between courses during a term or between their academic knowledge and co-op experience they are integrating their learning. Designing learning experiences with the intentional goal of helping students integrate their knowledge can help our students apply skills and knowledge learned in one situation to problems encountered in another. For more information about this topic and examples on its use on campus please visit the Integrative Learning section in the CTE webpage.
In the faculty of Engineering, our different programs have very coherent curricula that are very well structured with the aligned lab components, design projects and pre-requisite courses. In addition to our well-structured program a group of Engineering instructors took a step ahead by re-designing their courses to intentionally help their students make connections in their learning. In May 2013 we formed a group called Engineering Integrative Learning community. We have decided to meet twice a term. At these meetings a different instructor will share his/her experience in designing and delivering a course or a course component that focuses on integrative learning, followed by an informal discussion.
This group has met three times so far and we have had very useful and fruitful discussions.

I would like to invite all Engineering instructors to join this group if they would like to know more about specific experiences that others have had, contribute to the discussion, or share their own experience. “Anyone who would like to know more about this initiative can contact me at

D.I.Y. Exam Questions as a Tool for Deep Learning

Picture borrowed from the OND presentation

I couldn’t think of anything other than the OND conference presentations for my blog posting today. It was extremely hard for me to choose which presentation to talk about, but because of my Engineering background I decided to talk about an Engineering presentation that captured my attention.
The presentation was by Andrea Prier, Bill Owen, David Wang, Paula Smith, and Mary Robinson. The presenters focused on a process that they used in their courses (three first year courses and one graduate course) to encourage their students to think more deeply about the material they are learning.
They started their process by demonstrating to the students how their level of learning influences their motivation to learn the material, their retention of the information, and ultimately, their mastery of the course material. They designed a set of assignments in which the students were asked to create their own DIY test questions. This allowed the students find a deeper level of understanding of the content.
The DIY assignments were composed of the following steps:

  1. Identify 5 different concepts from one of your courses.
  2. Choose an example problem from each of the different areas.
  3. Manipulate your problems so that you are solving for a different variable.
  4. Solve your problems.
  5. Trade with a peer and critique / solve the peers problems.
  6. Create 20 questions for a ‘practice final’.
  7. Submit the problems for review by course instructors.
  8. Write your DIY practice final; Mark your own work!
  9. Write your Final Exam; it May include specific questions you created.

By the end of the term, the instructors found that the students were more comfortable working with the course concepts, more engaged with the course material and created some interesting questions. Furthermore, the students’ comments indicated that the majority enjoyed the ability to create these questions; however, the instructors needed to edit some of the created questions.
The most valuable outcomes from the presenters’ perspective were increased success rate of the students and the increase in student motivation to work with the course material. They felt that, since the students valued what they were doing and believed in their ability to do well in the course.
Finally, I would like to thank the presenters for a very useful presentation and would advise myself and other instructors of experimenting with this process.

Engage your students: A SYDE Example — Samar Mohamed

Group 2 working with their TA, Justin Eitchel

What is student engagement and how can we achieve it? These questions are always in my mind. Heller et al state that:

 “Faculty stimulate engagement by providing students with active learning experiences, conveying excitement and enthusiasm for their subject, and providing opportunities for student-faculty interactions.  Students show their engagement by participating in class discussions, doing research projects, and interacting with their professors and peers.”

 An example of an engaging engineering course was discussed in a previous blog in which the course instructors used several blended activities to engage the students with their course material.

 Another example on engaging engineering courses is SYDE 411 “Optimization and Numerical Methods”, which is the focus of this blog. I have been working with Prof. Paul Calamai and his teaching team to design and implement engaging blended activities for their students. The designed activities satisfy the previously mentioned criteria by giving the students the opportunity to:

  • interact actively with both their peers and their teaching team
  • do research projects
  • participate in group discussion
  • provide constructive feedback to their peers
  • reflect on their own work

SyDe 411 is a new fourth year core Engineering course with an emphasis on understanding and applying numerical methods and optimization techniques as tools for problem solving and systems design. Students’ engagement with the course material is an important aspect of their learning. In order for them to be actively engaged with the course material, Professor Paul Calamai and his teaching team implemented several blended activities that were designed to keep the students engaged with each week’s topics and eager to learn more about these topics. Group Projects and Group Assignments are two main blended activities in this course:

Group Projects:

Prof. Calamai took the group project beyond the regular boundaries and created an enjoyable learning experience for everyone. The group project activity is summarized as follows:

  • Each group is responsible for a project topic that is worth 25% of the course total grade.
  • Each group researches a specific topic and submits:

o   Lecture notes on the topic including examples of application and/or demonstration.
o   One project topic Problem per group member with their solutions.

  • Groups are paired and dry run presentations between paired groups are conducted to provide the presenting group with feedback and recommendations for improvements.
  • The presenting group’s project is then posted to a discussion board and another group (reviewing group)  reviews it and provides the presenting group with questions and feedback through the discussion board. The presenting group is expected to respond to these questions during it’s presentation.
  • The presenting group delivers a 30 minutes presentation/lecture on it’s specific topic followed by 10 minutes for questions and answers.
  • Peer evaluation is conducted twice during the term among each group’s members using the “Comprehensive Assessment for Team-Member Effectiveness” CATME online tool. Peer evaluation provides the students with feedback regarding their effectiveness as team members throughout the academic term.

Group Assignments:

Prof. Calamai presented an interesting scenario for the group assignments in which the students engage with the material and come to the tutorial prepared and ready for the learning experience. The group assignment activity is summarized as follows:

The class is divided into groups in which each group, under the supervision of the TA, is responsible for solving and presenting their specific group assignment problems. Students are encouraged to prepare excellent solutions because a subset of these questions will contribute to parts of the Midterm and Final exams. Each student in the group prepares a solution to a specific assignment problem according to the following schedule:

  • Individual questions are sent by email to each student in Group X.
  • Each student submits the answer to his specific question/s to a dropbox.
  • Professor Calamai grades and gives personal independent feedback to the students.
  • The students submit a revised version of their answers to a dropbox.
  • After Professor Calamai approves the answers, the TA posts them to a discussion board so that the rest of the class can see them and ask for clarification.
  •  Group X will run the tutorial and facilitate a discussion around their assignment problems.

I think that SYDE 411 teaching team puts a lot of time and effort in providing an exciting and enjoyable learning experience to their students.

1-     R. S. Heller, C. Beil, K. Dam, and B. Haerum “Student and Faculty Perceptions of Engagement in Engineering”, Journal of Engineering Education, July 2010.