Laboratory experiments are a mainstay of undergraduate engineering education because they are often used to satisfy not only ABET student outcomes, but also a number of more universal learning objectives [Feisel and Rosa, 2005]. This paper describes a redesign undertaken on a junior-level mechanical engineering laboratory concerning measurements and instrumentation, which was previously structured such that every lab introduced a new measurement technique or sensor/actuator (similar courses are prevalent in modern ME curricula). Beyond introducing novel concepts on a weekly basis, the original lab format suffered from an overwhelming number of poorly-integrated objectives and activities. This deficiency was exacerbated by the scale of the delivery (approximately 300 students per semester), where efficiency often superseded effectiveness.
The previous laboratory deficiencies fostered profuse student complaints regarding workload and practical relevance. The new laboratory format, discussed herein, promotes a different paradigm featuring inquiry-based lab objectives over rote procedural formats. The redesign is grounded in cognitive load theory (in particular, managing the cognitive load to maximize the ratio of germane cognitive load to extraneous and inherent cognitive load [Smith and Kosslyn, 2006]). Redesigning the laboratory involved several principal efforts: (1) removing extraneous or peripheral laboratory tasks, (2) developing new deliverables to emphasize higher levels of knowledge, and (3) structuring laboratory topics into two-week modules. The latter point is particularly important because it affords students the opportunity to think more deeply about the subject matter before moving on to dissimilar topics (i.e., quality is promoted over quantity). The depth of exposure is highly correlated with the students’ ability to reach higher levels of understanding, as depicted in various knowledge taxonomies [Shavelson, et al., 2005].
The objective of this paper is to describe the complete laboratory redesign process, including specific experiments, laboratory exercises, and expected student deliverables. In particular, these topics are discussed relative to the specified goal of the redesign: improving experiential learning and reflection. These changes are first contextualized by describing the placement of this course in the overall laboratory course hierarchy. The topical organization of the course content into two-week modules will then be described, focusing on the overall archetype that the first week introduces a topic and the second week encourages more open-ended student exploration. Practical aspects of the course redesign are also discussed, such as communication (i.e., scaffolding of writing exercises) and effective training of teaching assistants. The efficacy of the improved format is highlighted using student surveys regarding learning, motivation, and perceived cognitive load.
Feisel, L.D. and Rosa, A.J., 2005, “The Role of the Laboratory in Undergraduate Engineering Education,” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 94, No. 1, pp. 121-130.
Shavelson, R.J., Ruiz-Primo, M.A., & Wiley, E.W., 2005, “Windows into the mind,” Higher Education, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp 413–430.
Smith, E.S. and Kosslyn, S.M., 2006, Cognitive Psychology: Mind and Brain; Chapter 5: Encoding and Retrieval from Long-Term Memory, Pearson, NY.
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