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New teaching approach solves more than just basic problems

Four male students sit in a row facing a computer and talking to each other.

Josef Brown (left) and Alex Eschmann work with two other students in their group during their Engineering Materials course. The group work is a key component in the problem-based learning pedagogy.

A 2012 report surveying more than 1,200 employers in the St. Louis area found that the lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills was one of the most prominent shortcomings of recent hires. Two University of Missouri College of Engineering faculty members are working on implementing a pedagogy designed to integrate those skills into a mechanical engineering course.

Problem-based learning is a method of understanding a subject through problem solving. After seeing this technique applied in MU’s medical school, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department Professor Sanjeev Khanna, and MAE Associate Professor Robert Winholtz joined Professor David Jonassen, with MU’s School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a pilot problem-based learning engineering course.

“If you talk to employers in industry, that’s what they want — people who don’t have to be tutored through every step,” Khanna said.

The NSF’s $150,000 grant allowed Khanna and Winholtz to use a problem-based learning approach in the fall 2009 and 2010 semesters’ MAE 3200 course, Engineering Materials. In comparison, they taught the same course in the spring 2010 and 2011 semesters in the traditional lecture format. Students taking the pilot classes were told of and consented to the change in format at the beginning of the semester.

A man stands at the front of the room speaking to seated students.

Mechanical engineering associate professor Robert Winholtz lectures during the first segment of the course, Engineering Materials. The course is taught in a problem-based learning format, and the students will spend the rest of the class time working in groups to find a solution to the given problem.

With problem-based learning, faculty members spend about 25 to 30 percent of class time lecturing, during which they give the students a multi-faceted problem set in a real-world situation. Students spend the rest of the class period working in small groups to formulate a solution to the problem. With the problem-based learning format, groups not only find their own solutions, but also the methods to reach those solutions.

A new problem is introduced about every two weeks. Groups present a written technical report at the end of this period.

It’s an approach mechanical engineering senior Wolfgang Black said intimidated him at first, but soon proved to be a useful learning opportunity to not only understand the subject, but also the soft skills gained from working in teams.

“The class was a different type of learning scenario,” he said. “It was hard at first. There are no answer sheets, no study guides. It’s actually helping with the classes I’m taking now.”

A man on the left bends down to write on a piece of paper. A male student sitting on the right watches.

C.W. LaPierre Professor Sanjeev Khanna works with a student in the undergraduate lab during a problem-based learning class that was part of the pilot program in this 2010 file photo. (Photo by Dory Colbert)

Khanna said he’s hoping to steer students away from the traditional lecture and note-taking mindset.

“Undergraduates’ motivation is to solve the problem and get a good grade. We want to change that so that learning is focused less on tests and more on the materials,” Khanna said. “The students were always engaged.”

Once the pilot was completed, Khanna said students’ reactions gave them the best way to assess the program. Some students complained about the amount of reading, he said, but others found they became better problem-solvers.

Black said the class taught him how to be resourceful and was the first class he’d had that focused on group learning.

“I had no idea where to go for anything engineering-wise,” he said. “After taking that class, I feel like I know all these resources better. I know the language better.”

The students aren’t the only ones learning.

Winholtz said the new method of teaching was different than any he’d experienced as a student or educator.

“We’ve all had a lifetime taking and giving classes,” Winholtz said.

A man stands at the entrance of a building.

Senior mechanical engineering major Wolfgang Black took the problem-based learning format course, Engineering Materials, last year. He said while the new format intimidated him at first, he quickly learned how to use the resources in the class and also finds it beneficial in his current classes.

Khanna said he and Winholtz are constantly looking at the best way to structure problem-based learning materials for engineering courses.

Currently, the MAE 3200 course is taught in the problem-based learning format. The next step is to attain funding for Phase II of the project, which the pair has taken the lead on after Jonassen’s death in December. In Phase II, they said they hope to widen the application of problem-based learning to other classes and plan to measure how well students adjust to a problem-based learning format.

In the meantime, Khanna said they have stirred interest from other faculty members and universities with the results of the pilot program.

“Three other universities have expressed interest in teaching their faculty to teach this method after hearing about the approach from MU,” he said.