Typically in introductory structural engineering courses with a lab component, the instructional approach is to present the underlying theory via pre-lab lecture/reading and subsequently have students conduct guided experiments that affirm that theory. The new Fall 2015 course offering described in this paper takes the reverse approach where students’ hands-on exploration of a concept occurs prior to formal instruction. As such, the course is based upon Da Vinci’s perspective that: “[i]n the examination of physical problems I begin by making a few experiments,…we must commence with experience, and strive by means of it to discover truth.”
In the course, student exploration of fundamental structural engineering concepts was facilitated through the following activities:
• Full-class physical demonstrations led by the instructor during lecture
• Small-group experimentation in a laboratory setting
• Case studies highlighting both failures and exemplary natural/engineered structures presented via instructor lectures and supplementary multi-media materials
The paper describes the open-ended course framework where instructors posed targeted questions for students/teams to investigate based on the demonstrations, experiments and case studies. The students explored these questions in the manner they (individually or in teams) deem appropriate, while documenting relevant quantitative and qualitative observations in their lab notebooks. Reflecting on their gathered information, students developed evidence-based responses to the questions. These learning exercises were followed by instructor-facilitated discussion where students/teams share their observations and collaboratively draw conclusions that point towards related engineering theory. Finally, the instructor formally defined the associated theory.
The objective of this paper is demonstrate how the “exploration before theory” approach can be implemented and what is required to accomplish the hands-on, inquiry, discussion, and formal teaching aspects that comprise this teaching style. Associated with this objective, the authors also share student feedback on the course that will be collected through mid- and end-of-semester surveys for about twenty undergraduate students. These surveys solicited student input on the inquiry-based learning atmosphere as well as individual course activities. The authors believe that a classroom environment that emphasizes discovery – where students act as researchers and play an active role in building their own knowledge – is a format that can be readily adapted to other engineering disciplines; furthermore, it can inspire higher-level thinking and lead to a more engaging learning experience.
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