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.

Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN

The summer
is a great time for catching up on projects that get lost in the flurry of the busy fall and winter terms. With the roll out of LEARN (replacing UW-ACE) and all the associated changes and transitions that we have been facing, one part of the old UW-ACE system that is in my prevue and that was getting short shrift is the Instructor Resources Repository (IRR). However, with LEARN more on course and the slower pace of the spring term, I’m glad to say that we have almost completed the migration of the IRR to the Learning Object Repository (LOR) in LEARN. Continue reading Launching the new Instructor Resources Repository in the LOR of LEARN

Calendar Descriptions – Jane Holbrook

Students at the University of Denver

My pet peeve is a slightly different. When students go and look at descriptions of courses in the UW course calendar they will see the course number and an array of codes for the “type of instruction”, e.g.,  LEC, TUT or SEM or LEC, LAB as well as a very brief description of the course that usually does not include any information on how the learning will happen in the course, only about what will be learned in terms of content. A search in the Schedule of Classes gives a bit more information about the amount of time spent in the LEC and TUT each week. This information does not provide any insight into what students can expect to be doing in the 8-10 hours a week that they spend on a course in “class” and outside of “class”.  Courses where students are required to watch online lectures and engage in group work in their classes usually have the LEC designation, and the way the course is actually taught may be a bit of a surprise to students when they come to the first class.  Many courses on campus expect students to participate in online tutorials and discussions may or may not have a TUT or DISC designation.

A course is made up of learning  experiences that are integrated together and take place with the instructor and/or class mates and independently in a variety of environments: face-to-face, online and offline. We should be able to give students more information (other than word of mouth) about how they will be learning before they come to the first class.  It’s exciting that there are so many ways that students can learn inside and outside the class room and in the community, it would be great to have a way to communicate the richness of the experiences that will be offered in courses to students when they are deciding what to take each term. The current calendar and course schedule designations seem limited. What’s the solution? Maybe course descriptions that include how and where students will learn rather than content topics, or areas in the course schedule where instructors can outline what’s special about their course each term. Any ideas?  This is a blog, so comments and ideas are welcome.

Blogs and Eportfolios in Waterloo’s LEARN — Marlene Griffith Wrubel

Waterloo LEARN is the new online learning system. It was introduced in the Spring of 2011 and has been fully integrated in on-campus blended courses since January 2012. There are many activities that faculty can use in this system to increase the learning experience for their students. Continue reading Blogs and Eportfolios in Waterloo’s LEARN — Marlene Griffith Wrubel

Piazza – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates

Piazza.com offers students and professors a smart-looking , easy-to-use discussion forum for question & answer communication in university and college courses. It is free to use and free of advertising. and is proving popular enough to use at some of the technical schools in the USA (e.g. Stanford, Berkeley, Georgia Tech) and Canada (e.g. University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto). Continue reading Piazza – web-based discussion forums for university courses — Paul Kates

Desire to Grow — Mary Power

The other weekend I was with my daughter at a belated Earth Day tree planting event in Waterloo Park. It was a cold day, but we had a good turnout and planted all the trees and bushes within a couple hours. A great day! Part of what made it exciting for me was looking around at the wonderful mixed demographic working together. I would guess the group represented the cultural and age demographic of Waterloo region fairly well, and included a fairly large group of our university students. The group planting near my daughter and I were engineering students, who had gone to bed at about 4 am after an organized school event and were out planting trees at 10 am. Oh youth! However, they were out there because the wanted to be engaged in the community in which they find themselves and because they care about our planet.

The conversation drifted to urban forests and education and the desire to learn (more). We were talking about the need to know about issues and opportunities, how to find the spark, and that ultimately this increase in knowledge will create the desire and passion to learn, to care and to act. We were discussing environmental issues, but with my being so wrapped up currently in our new learning management system project and our new vendor Desire to Learn, I began making inferences.  I realized that is exactly what a learning management system can do if used effectively – help instill the knowledge and create the desire to learn.

I hope we use this transition, that will initially takes us outside our comfort zones, as an opportunity to grow and to capitalize on the “Desire to Learn.”  Isn’t that what university is all about?


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.