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.

Peeking Behind the Campus Curtains: Learning Through Leadership — Fahd Munir, CTE Coop Student

blog picImagine a university experience without clubs, teams, or leadership opportunities. While academic achievement is important, many other campus opportunities provide chances to get involved in other aspects of university life. Going to class is usually the number one priority; however, that does not and should not make it the only priority. This idea of getting involved with campus life as a student leader is something I learned in my first year living at the Ron Eydt Village residence at the University of Waterloo.

When September rolls around, the campus is filled with promotions from the various student clubs, teams, and services offering leadership opportunities. So why get involved?  Why take on leadership opportunities at all?

Signing up for clubs and attending meetings sounds a bit overwhelming, especially with midterms, assignments, readings and finals all term long. This being said, once you dip your toe into the extra-curricular pool you see how easy it really can be! There are plenty of opportunities across campus that student leaders can utilize to refine their learning style.

Any first year undergraduate student can tell you about the challenge of making new friends in class. Most students are too focussed on lecture content to care what you have to say, and when you are finally able to strike up a conversation with someone, you don’t see them again in that same spot next class.  University is always a good place to find a common-ground with students who share similar interests. So how do you find these students if not in class?

One of the most comforting things to know as an undergraduate student is that there are students in my class that can be helpful if I miss a lecture due to illness or an interview. Not every student has the luxury in their first year to have a residence floor where making friends is as simple as saying hello every morning. Assembling study groups with the students in your residence is crucial to learning how to learn in a new environment away from home. Every student has a different mode of learning, so understanding what works on an individual basis is the best way to achieve academic success.

If you talk to any successful upper-year university student on campus they will tell you the same thing: they didn’t get to where they are alone – they needed the people around them to help put them in a position where they could succeed and learn more effectively. Study groups that may not have been as effective back in high school become much more constructive and useful around exam times. One of the most satisfying rewards that study groups or extra-curricular involvement provides is the chance to bounce ideas off of other students.

The Federation of Students(FEDS) works with services and clubs on campus that specialize in academics, religion, environment, politics, business, health, and everything in between. Learning is not limited to these types of clubs; it can also become easier by involvement in intramural sports, fitness classes and sports team. With all of these different ways to meet other students it was really up to me to pick what I felt best lined up with my interests.

So now that we have established the presence of opportunities on campus, the question becomes: do the new friends you meet outside of class help or hinder your learning? In other words, is student leadership a hindrance or a supplement to learning? Experiential learning is one of the pillars of the University of Waterloo’s strategic plan, especially with the emphasis on co-operative education for many students. Experiential learning, through club and service experiences, allows students with similar academic and employment aspirations to interact. This is beneficial to learning because it allows both students to gain a new perspective and discuss concepts more openly. See the Centre for Teaching Excellence blog written by Katherine Lithgow called “Providing Authentic Learning Experiences” for more information about experiential learning.

My own involvement with the Campus Response Team (CRT), which is composed of undergraduate students from all of the different faculties, shows how getting involved with other undergraduate students enhances one’s learning.  The bonds that I have made during my previous two terms volunteering have given me an outlet to ask for advice from the older students, as well as the opportunity to make some great friends to spend time with outside of classes. So how does this experience make me a better learner? Not only has the CRT boosted my confidence during a medical response, but it has helped reinforce important soft skills such as communication, teamwork and project management. CRT has also given me an opportunity to discuss academic interests, course content, lab experiments and instructor teaching styles with my fellow undergraduate students.

Clubs, services and teams help you obtain the soft skills necessary to succeed in the workplace and academic environment. The soft skills are transferable to different areas of learning, such as study habits at work or on campus. Learning how to communicate better can lead to setting up a study group which can actually lead to more success in academic work. Joining an intramural team on campus can be the perfect way to alleviate the stress that gets built up from assignments and exams. Without this burden of stress, students can learn freely and absorb knowledge better. Professional schools and graduate student programs in Canada are becoming more competitive, so it is important to be well-rounded through leadership experience.

Being a leader on campus is about more than just résumé building; rather, it’s about applying effective leadership qualities to the academic learning environment such as on a co-operative work term. Leadership opens the door for self-discovery, but it requires that we check behind the scenes of campus life to do so. So the next time the club fair rolls around, use it as an opportunity to sneak a peek behind the campus curtains.  What you notice might actually surprise you!

Navigating the Pitfalls of Peer Evaluations – Kyra Jones


Having students work as a team for summative and formative assessment can be challenging, but implemented thoughtfully, it can be highly beneficial to students. Teamwork allows an instructor to pose more difficult problems that encourage deep learning. Group work can also be an effective way to engage students in a large class as well as prepare students for the workplace. Despite these benefits, group work can be challenging to implement.

One tool that can help group work succeed in a classroom is to incorporate peer evaluations. Peer evaluations help to provide a key benefit of group work in the classroom: teaching students how to give and receive constructive feedback. Peer evaluations provide a method to keep students accountable for their contributions to the team’s task, can help reduce group conflict, and lead to a more evenly distributed workload amongst group members. Finally, this tool can help alert instructors to conflicts in between group member. Peer evaluations have many benefits, but like group work, using this tool effectively takes careful planning.

First, the expectations of the students in the team setting must be communicated clearly and directly. Students need to be aware of the criteria by which they will be assessed and use to assess their peers. It is also essential that instructors formulate expectations that are realistic and align with the course objectives. It can be helpful to involve the students in creating the peer evaluation criteria and designing procedures surrounding peer assessment. This can motivate students to take the process seriously and address student anxiety surrounding group work. Students take more control of the peer evaluation criteria and process, promoting validity and reliability of the peer assessments.

It is also important to have multiple peer evaluations during group assessments. This allows students to develop clear expectations of their responsibility as a group member and gives students who under-perform, especially those who do not realize the are not meeting their peer’s expectations, a chance to improve.

Additionally, we need to provide students with the tools and skills to give and receive constructive feedback. Giving constructive feedback is not a natural skill and many students have not had the opportunity to participate in peer evaluation.  One method to introduce students to this process is through demonstration, looking at a journal article or other work as a class and providing constructive criticism. Further, the class can work together to restructure examples of inappropriate feedback to create constructive comments. This skill that takes practice, which further exemplifies the need for multiple formative peer assessments throughout the project.

In my view, one of the most important aspects of implementing a peer evaluation system is to take into consideration your own teaching style and goals for the class. One model of peer evaluation may work for one instructor, but this model may be ineffective when implemented in your classroom. As with all teaching tools, it is important to tailor peer evaluation models to your own personality, teaching style, course, and institution. Being a good teacher is something we all strive for, but it is important to be a good teacher in a way that reflects who you are.

Peer evaluations can be a tricky component of group work, but with diligent planning and consideration, this tool can make group work a more realistic and successful exercise in the classroom.

Aggarwal, P. & O’Brien, C.L. (2008). Social Loafing on Group Projects: Structural  Antecedents and Effect on Student Satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Education, 30(3), 255-64.

Cestone, C.M., Levine, R.E. & Lane, D.R. Peer Assessment and Evaluation in Team-Based Learning. In Michaelson, L.K., Sweet, M., Parmelee, D.X. (Eds.), Team-Based Learning: Small-Group Learnings Next Big Step (69-78). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 

Using World Cafe Methodology to Transform Classroom Discussions – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As I was recently sitting in one of my favourite local cafes surrounded by conversations, I noticed how deeply engaged and connected the participants of these conversations were.  It is not that often that I get to see this type of conversations in the university classroom.  No doubt, the physical layout of a modern classroom is a far cry from the ambient and hospitable space that one expects to find in their favourite cafe.  But is there a way to create a conversation in the classroom that builds authentic connections, engages the learners and makes them fully present in the moment? Continue reading Using World Cafe Methodology to Transform Classroom Discussions – Svitlana Taraban-Gordon