To date, our research team has created five hands-on inquiry-based learning activities (IBLAs) to engage students in conceptual learning in engineering dynamics. The activities allow the students to experiment with physical objects similar to those they might see in a homework problem, i.e. weights on a pulley, hollow and solid cylinders rolling down a ramp, gyroscopes spinning, and strings wrapped around spools pulled gently across a surface. The scenarios are designed to produce non-intuitive results, resulting in cognitive conflict. In this way, the activities intentionally challenge students to rethink their conceptual frameworks.
The IBLA follows a series of different physical cases, each of which utilizes a predict-observe-explain cycle. We first ask students to make an individual prediction (often using an online quiz system) about a physical scenario, and then allow them to discuss this prediction in teams of 3-4 members. After recording any changed predictions after their discussion, students then conduct the “experiment”, allowing the physical world to be the authority instead of the instructor. Following prompts on a team worksheet, students then try to explain what they have observed using the principles of dynamics. Multiple (but similar) scenarios are then presented, often accompanied by instructor explanations and class discussion.
As part of this research, we identify the concepts used by the students as they piece together their observations in order to understand if meaningful learning is occurring. We also try to pinpoint how they have constructed their understanding and whether it is from observations in the world around them, learned in an introductory course prerequisite to dynamics, or something they have constructed by themselves using the information learned in the dynamics class in which they are currently enrolled. If a misconception is identified, we aim to tailor the activity to address and correct it. The overriding goal of this research is to provide students with a coherent framework that pushes them to better conceptual understanding.
Assessment has been done in a variety of ways: analysis of video-taped think-alouds in which individual students experience the IBLAs, pre and post scores on the Dynamics Concept Inventory (DCI), performance on transfer problems, subjective questionnaires, and performance on their predictions as they walk through multiple cases of the IBLA. On a target DCI question, students improved from 31.3% correct (pre) to 89.8% (post) after doing the rolling cylinders IBLA – similar results have been obtained for the mass-pulley IBLA. Additionally, students have self-reported that the activities improved their learning (4.4/5 on a Likert survey) and that they were motivating (4.2/5). Additionally, students who have used class time (4 out of 28 50 minute periods) perform slightly higher (though no statically significant difference) on a traditional problem-based final examination than those in classes who do not incorporate IBLAs.
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