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Tufts professors innovate in the classroom, avoid student backlash

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 10:04


Many students have taken at least one class in which the instructor rambles on while students find it difficult to stay focused. Although typical in college, this traditional method of teaching large introductory courses is driving students away from certain classes and subject areas.

According to a recent Washington Post article entitled “Colleges looking beyond the lecture,” higher education leaders increasingly attribute the high attrition rates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines to the passive lecture style. Many universities — as well as the White House — are looking for ways to replace, or at least reform, the lecture format in order to make the classroom experience more interactive and encourage active learning. Tufts is keeping up with the national trends by revising the freshman engineering curriculum.

The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles reported in 2010 that roughly a third of students begin their undergraduate education intent on majoring in a STEM discipline, but of that group, less than half actually complete a degree in a STEM field. In contrast, the Tufts School of Engineering has as many graduates as matriculated students, because an equal number of people transfer into and out of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and essentially no transfer students from other institutions are accepted, Dean of the School of Engineering Linda Abriola said.

Abriola explained that because the university attracts students with broad interests and provides them with individualized faculty advising from the outset of their college careers, Tufts has an advantage. In addition, engineering classes are generally small, and the few big lectures are balanced with smaller recitations and laboratories, allowing for student-professor interaction.

“[In the past], the purpose of large lectures was to weed out students,” Abriola said. “But our strategy is to recruit the best students we can and help them stay in engineering.”

One invaluable resource for achieving this goal is the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), which conducts research on how engineering is learned and develops various educational tools.

“We’d like to take [CEEO’s] cutting-edge research and implement it directly in our classes,” Abriola said. “There is definitely room for improvement

— we’re trying to get more projects into the classrooms.”

Taking into account CEEO’s recommendations, the School of Engineering collaborated with the Department of Mathematics to create Math 36 (Applied Calculus II), a class designed specifically for engineers who want to apply mathematical concepts to problems in a smaller class setting, Abriola said.

Tufts faculty interested in improving their teaching methods also have the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) at their disposal. In addition to holding regular seminars for faculty to discuss their teaching methods and learn from each other, CELT members have also audited lectures and worked personally with instructors, according to Abriola.

As a 2010-2011 CELT scholar, Civil and Environmental Engineering Senior Lecturer Lee Minardi learned how to work better with large classes, particularly with the advent of technology in the classroom. He teaches the two mandatory freshman engineering classes — Engineering Graphics (EN2) in the fall and Introduction to Computing in Engineering in the spring — both of which enroll more than 200 students every year. Minardi, who was interested in making the material more interesting and keeping his students engaged, Minardi incorporated several interactive tools into his lectures.

“Research shows that students think more about a question when they have to discuss it with a partner than when they hear the answer from an expert,” he said. “So the iClickers have helped students find out how much they know and given me immediate feedback.”

Minardi’s classes are also famous among engineers for the use of the “who button,” which is a program on PowerPoint that randomly selects a student’s name whenever Minardi needs a volunteer to answer a question or explain how to do something.

“I use the ‘who button’ not so much to grade the student on their response, but to get more interaction in the classroom,” he said.

Typically, Minardi refers to the PowerPoint and the computer program to talk students through the software, while students would actually use the software to complete assignments only during the lab period, applying what they supposedly learned during lecture, according to sophomore Trevor Partington.

“Even if I tried hard to pay attention, the lecture format wasn’t very successful for me because I couldn’t retain the information without interacting with it,” Partington said. “Instead of promoting participation, people ended up dreading participating.”

Despite similar efforts to make introductory STEM courses more interactive, faculty leaders in the School of Engineering realize that the experiences of freshman engineers can still be improved, according to Abriola. To that end, EN2 will not be a mandatory course next fall, and incoming freshmen will have a choice of six new introductory engineering courses in addition to EN2.

“These courses will include some lecturing, but the focus will be on doing team projects,” Abriola said. “Our hope is that students will be taking one course each semester where they are working cooperatively with their fellow students instead of just sitting back and trying to absorb some knowledge.”

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