Reimagining Engineering Education

Active learning in EK301, Engineering Mechanics
Active learning in EK301, Engineering Mechanics

You’ve seen it before: a single faculty member on stage delivering a lecture to row after row of students dutifully taking notes, with little or no interaction between the lecturer and the note takers. It’s been the model for science and engineering education for more than a century, but a new paradigm is emerging that turns this model on its head, all while improving student outcomes: the flipped classroom.

In the flipped classroom, students view lectures online while at home, and spend classroom time applying what they learned both individually and in small group exercises. Collaborating with their peers at round tables in a revamped “learning studio” and guided by the faculty member and a team of teaching assistants moving from table to table, they solve problems that reflect the scope of the lecture material. And the difficulty: some problems are chosen based on trouble spots identified via mandatory quizzes that accompany the online lectures to assess student comprehension.       

This is where engineering education is heading, and Boston University, which launched its Digital Learning Initiative (DLI) last year to spearhead innovative projects in online learning at all of its schools and colleges, is fully on board. The DLI recently awarded $80,000 to fund a College of Engineering proposal to enhance two core undergraduate engineering courses, EK127 (Introduction to Engineering Computation) and EK307 (Electric Circuits), with a suite of classroom-flipping, studio-based educational technologies and techniques. Lessons learned from this pilot program could be used to upgrade the learning experience in other engineering courses.

Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE), the College of Engineering’s associate dean for Educational Initiatives, sees these pilot projects as part of a broader College-wide effort to use digital learning technologies—from tablets to Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)—to bring engineering education into the 21st century.

“Inspired by the success of these technologies in other disciplines and energized by the support and training that the DLI is providing, we are developing new ways to improve what’s important to the student: learning; retention; and career preparation,” said Little.

In both EK127 and EK307, instructors and teaching assistants funded by the DLI grant will develop course content using edX, a non-profit online platform that offers interactive online classes and MOOCs—not as a vehicle to reach large numbers of students via the Internet, but as a tool to boost active learning in the classroom. For each class meeting, they will record a video on the material students need to learn for that class, make it accessible through the edX platform, use edX assessment tools to set up online quizzes, and design active learning exercises.

The instructor for EK127, 2014 Metcalf Cup and Prize winner and Assistant Professor Stormy Attaway (ME), has been gradually flipping the course over the last three years. With the new funding—and support by “course builders” such as Declan Bowman (BME’15), one of the first students in the College’s STEM Educator-Engineer Program (STEEP)—she aims to completely flip the course. Once all course content is placed online along with assessments, Attaway will devote all classroom time to active learning in Photonics Room 117, an instructional space that the College is converting into an active learning studio complete with round tables and modern electronic displays.

“At this point there is ample evidence that flipped classes with active learning environments work; the focus is now on how to get faculty to adopt these best practices,” she said, noting that transforming a traditional lecture into an online course module—breaking it into bite-sized chunks, recording the video and hosting it on the edX platform—can take up to 20 hours. “Although my primary goal is to improve the learning experience for my students, my secondary goal is to be a resource for my colleagues so that I can help them transform their courses.”

With his portion of the DLI funding, Professor Mark Horenstein (ECE) is developing a series of 30-minute course modules to aid fellow EK307 instructors who wish to flip their classrooms or enhance them with online instruction. Always available to students and consisting of animated, voice-over PowerPoint and/or videotaped lectures, the modules are intended to provide an interactive learning tool to supplement traditional textbooks, lectures, discussions and lab work. 

“In my experience, students learn in a myriad of different ways,” said Horenstein. “Some students thrive in the traditional lecture/homework environment, while others learn best in a hands-on setting, for example, when a small group works with a professor during office hours on specific problems and concepts. Still other students learn best in the laboratory, where they can transfer lecture/discussion concepts into the hands-on design of electric circuits that solve a problem or meet a desired specification. The hope is that these modules will service all of these learning styles, and more.”

The two pilot projects leverage earlier digital technology-enabled active learning efforts by Lecturer Caleb Farny (ME) in EK301 (Engineering Mechanics) and Assistant Professor Martin Steffin (BME, MED) in BE 209 (Principles of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology), and pioneering work by faculty in the Physics Department in peer-based learning and the use of studio space.    

“As these early adopters show what’s possible, we look forward to bringing additional faculty on board,” said Little. “By working with people who are taking risks to do the right thing for students, we’re going to demonstrate the potential of digital learning technologies to make a difference for our engineering students.”


Screenshot of online course video from EK 127, Introduction to Engineering Computation
Screenshot of online course video from EK 127, Introduction to Engineering Computation