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
“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.
I love being in the classroom, whether it’s large or small, whether I’m officially the teacher or the learner. But I also love getting out of the classroom. Some of the most powerful experiences in my own learning and my own teaching have been observing, interacting, and reflecting in spaces other than lecture halls and seminar rooms. Some time ago, I wrote about place-based pedagogy (with some suggested reading) and gave the example of a workshop for the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference at Thompson Rivers University. Since then, I have continued to use what previously I hadn’t a name for in my own cultural studies course — the field observations and intellectual response papers, the spontaneous “field trips” out into parts of campus to apply concepts, the incorporation of people’s experiences into the framework of the course.
Today’s post is about a small piece of the place-based learning experience I had at the EDC conference, a piece that I’m considering using with my own learners when they do their field observations. To date, I’ve supplied them with reflection questions and notetaking guides for the site visits. I’ve used the online quiz tool in the learning management system to ask “prime the pump” journal questions. But I’ve never yet tried the “transit question” approach. Transit questions were thought-triggering questions handed out just before traveling to the field sites in Kamloops. There were, to my recollection, four different cue cards and each pair of people received one or two cue cards. The idea was that the question on the front (and maybe there was one on the back) would ready us for what we were about to see by asking us about related prior experience with X, or what we expect to find when we get to X, or how is X usually structured. The idea was to talk to our partners about the questions and answer them informally as we made our way to the sites (which took 10-20 minutes to get to).
I can imagine transit questions for pairs that would be suitable for my course too. However, we don’t always have pairs (sometimes small groups, sometimes solitary learners going to a space in their hometown, and so on). I can easily adapt the idea for solo use, though clearly I wouldn’t want someone to be taking notes in response to the prompt while, say, driving!
If we do the field trip to Laurel Creek Conservation area again to test ideas found in Jody Baker’s article about Algonquin Park and the Canadian imaginary, I’ll be using transit questions for the bus ride for sure. With other observations I will have to think about how to adapt the idea. Choosing the right question or questions seems to be important, and offering space to jot notes for those who don’t want to start talking immediately. I’d strongly encourage this approach when you know people will be traveling somewhere for the course by bus, or by foot/assistive device. I can imagine that there are lots of opportunities to do this (and it’s likely already done) in disciplines as varied as geography, planning, fine art, architecture, biology, geosciences, accounting, anthropology, and many others. I’m thinking it would be great if they could pull questions from a question bank to their phones or other devices en route as well… the possibilities!
Transit questions on the way to field sites helped to ready me and my partner for what we’d be looking at, to reflect on the implications of our mini-field trip, and to connect our histories to the present task. I recommend them wholeheartedly.
Web 3.0, they say, is going to be a “semantic web,” which I take to mean that it’s a web which will allow us to easily explore relationships among large amounts of discrete bits of data. One way of exploring relationships, of course, is visually: humans can literally “see” patterns of relationships more easily than they can otherwise apprehend them. Examples abound, but one that I recently came across is especially interesting from an “assessment” point of view. It’s a visual depiction of comments that a class of students made on one another’s blogs. In the visualization, each student is represented by a small circle (or node) and the the comments that he or she made are represented by arrows leading to the nodes of other students. So, if Matthew commented on Ephraim’s blog once, then the arrow starts from Matthew’s node and points to Ephaim’s node. At a glance, it’s easy to see who has been most active in making comments, who has received most comments, and who hasn’t been active at all — and that information can clearly help an instructor with both formative and summative assessment. You can the visualization, which was made with the platform Many Eyes, here.
Another visualization tool that I recently came across is called DebateGraph, which is intended to help people map out the various ideas, positions, and evidence that make up complex arguments. At first glance, a DebateGraph visualization looks like an ordinary concept map, but as you click the various nodes, you see that each one dynamically changes: it becomes the central node, and new nodes — ones that are connected to it — jump into place. The platform is collaborative, so if you want to contribute to the argument, you just need to log in, navigate to the appropriate node, and then add your point. You can see an example of a visualization in DebateGraph here.
I’m a bit sceptical of DebateGraph’s “practical” implications: in other words, if your family is having argument about where to go for your summer vacation, I don’t think that using DebateGraph would be worth the investment of time it would take to map out the argument. But as a learning tool — that is, as a way of helping students untangle the complexities of, say, a geopolitical conflict or an ethical issue — I think that the very “deliberate” methodology of DebateGraph could be very useful.
Dr. Michael Wesch’s opening keynote at this year’s Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education conference in Toronto caused me to think deeply about social construction of knowledge – and how that might flavour my teaching this coming term, particularly with graduate students in education. You may be familiar with Wesch’s video A Vision of Students Today Continue reading Social Construction of Knowledge: Wiki in Graduate School — Nicola Simmons