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A Taste of Tufts: Chris Rogers

Rogers works to improve engineering education for students of all ages

Published: Monday, April 2, 2012

Updated: Monday, April 2, 2012 07:04

rogers

Misako Ono / The Tufts Daily

Professor Chris Rogers tries give elementary school children a strong knowledge base in engineering. One of the clasroom methods he uses — teaching by investigation — lets students see firsthand how science works rather than having it explained to them by a teacher.


The Experimental College’s weekly lecture series “A Taste of Tufts: A Sampling of Faculty Research” returned last week with Professor of Mechanical Engineering Chris Rogers.

In his 23 years at Tufts, Rogers has traveled to New Zealand with mechanical engineering students and also taught students how to build a hamburger cooker out of Legos. He said his favorite experiment at Tufts was one in which he got the opportunity to play Ultimate Frisbee in zero−gravity conditions while on an experimental spacecraft examining particle−laden flows.

Rogers is also the co−director of the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, and he spent the majority of the lecture talking about the Center’s research.

“The goal of the Center is for everyone to understand the basics of math, science and engineering,” he said.

According to Rogers, a major problem in science and engineering education is that it lacks excitement. In fact, he believes that most of the science education in high school and middle school is not really science but rather memorization. Rogers believes that science should be about learning to understand the world around you.

“In most of the science [classes], it is usually taught there is only one right answer, which is not true,” he said. “There are many answers.”

Rogers explained that engineering is about three things: formulating a problem that you want to solve, figuring out a path to that goal and, most importantly, failing.

“If you don’t fail, you’re probably not being very creative,” he said.

Rogers works with elementary teachers around the world every year to help them bring engineering education into their classrooms, and he said that it sometimes comes as a shock when he tells teachers that their second−grade students will fail.

“I measure success by the diversity of solutions — not by the number of right [solutions],” he said. “At the Center, what we are trying to do is awaken innovation in classrooms and kids.”

For example, he described an activity in which he gave elementary school students a specific number of Legos to create a duck. For him, what made the activity successful was the number of different ducks that the students created, not necessarily any particular student building the “right” duck.

During the lecture, Rogers stated the three main principles of the Center. The first is that all children are budding engineers, who are eager to build and learn. The second is that teachers are a key part of this education, and it is essential to work with the teachers who know the individual students.

“The goal is to stop telling and start listening to what the students have to say,” he said. “The goal of the classroom is to get kids to define their mental models. We do this very well in kindergarten and in graduate school, but in between we do the telling model.”

The third principle of the Center is that the classroom makes a difference; the environment impacts how a person studies. For example, Rogers said that desks facing forward promote just listening to the teacher. On the other hand, rearranging the desks can promote discussion.

Rogers explained that, from its research, the Center has developed a fundamental belief that there is no one right way to teach everything.

“It is pretty obvious that everybody has different tastes, but we expect everyone to learn the same way. We have to figure out many different ways to teach,” he said.

Rogers described different models of effective teaching that the Center has identified. He classified teaching by talking as one style that is undoubtedly familiar to Tufts students. He pointed out that this traditional lecture model can be effective with an engaging speaker, but it is often inadequate.

He proposed another model of effective teaching — teaching by investigation. Rogers explained that the Center does a lot of work with a group called Expeditionary Learning, which works with schools and instructors to implement the teaching−by−investigation method.

Rogers said that one way for students to take their learning into their own hands is through the software product SAM Animation, which was originally developed by the Center.

According to SAManimation.com, the software is “designed specifically for K−12 students and teachers, allowing for quick and easy creation of stop−motion animations in content ranging from photosynthesis to Newton’s Laws to poetry to fractions.”

“By letting the kids make models of the world themselves, [SAM Animation] can help them understand the world around them,” Rogers said.

Rogers explained that teaching−by−building is another innovative method. That style asks: “How can I get you to build your understanding of the subject I’m trying to teach you?”

With this in mind, the Center cooperates with LEGO and has created many activities with Legos that teachers can use with students of all ages.

The last model of effective teaching Rogers identified was teaching−by−listening.

“If I have a class of 200, it is fairly difficult to listen to all of my students. But you have students listen to their peers,” he said. “For example, you can have kids make stop action movies with SAM, where kids can explain a concept like temperature in teams. The argumentation is where a lot of the learning is occurring.”

Rogers explained that his ultimate goals in teaching are to encourage children to be curious, give them a passion for finding answers, get them to test the validity of those answers and give them the self−confidence to take information and transfer it to new situations.

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