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Passion for student learning drives ECE professor

A man and four women stand in a group photo with hills and green scenery behind them.

Robert O’Connell poses with some of his students overlooking scenery during the MU Engineering study abroad trip to Ireland.

After a sabbatical in Ireland, Robert O’Connell returned to Mizzou with new ideas. He started fine-tuning a modern teaching method for use in the undergraduate engineering classroom and also began a new study abroad course to Ireland.

O’Connell, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, has dual citizenship in the United States and Ireland. His father was born there and O’Connell always wanted to visit and find relatives there.

He got that chance in 2009, when he was named a Fulbright Scholar and went to teach and learn at the Dublin Institute of Technology. O’Connell said he learned about several different types of modern teaching methods.

“I think they were hoping that I would help them refine their problem-based learning method,” O’Connell said, but that didn’t seem practical for the university setting because of the steps that might be skipped at arriving at a solution.

“If you got it done, you got it done,” he said. “But at Mizzou we have all these things we want students to learn. We’re trying to teach particular methods and ways to solve problems, so that doesn’t work.”

Instead, O’Connell found himself drawn to the team-based learning method. He’s spent three years refining the teaching style so it works for sophomore engineering students in his circuit theory courses.

“I think it’s in pretty good shape now,” O’Connell said. “There’s always going to be some minor adjustments but the major things are in place.”

The method relies on group problem-solving work to give students a deeper understanding of the material than they’d get from lectures and readings, O’Connell said. Some of the major tweaks he made were to shorten the so-called readiness cycle and include the principles of team-based learning as a learning outcome.

O’Connell based the changes on his own observations and questionnaires given to students with the approval of the Campus International Review Board.

O’Connell implemented the following five changes:

  • Divided students into teams of four instead of the traditional five or seven.
  • Had students use a specific problem-solving routine during group problem solving sessions.
  • Shortened the “readiness cycle” by not making students read too far ahead beforehand. “They could hardly read a few pages ahead without getting into trouble with the material,” O’Connell said.
  • Used both formative and cumulative assessments, with tests throughout the course only helping students if they did poorly on the final.
  • Rephrased course goals as outcomes that students would be able to do at the end of the course, including one for the team-based learning process.

O’Connell said the biggest challenge with implementing the team-based learning strategy was making sure students were doing the reading before classes. He started giving frequent pop quizzes to encourage them.

“If they don’t buy into the process they won’t do well,” O’Connell said. The goals, he said, are to help them get both a deeper understanding of the material than they would otherwise through just lectures and develop some of the professional skills, such as teamwork, communication and problem-solving that are so important today.

He said he’s gotten positive feedback from former students and professors teaching upper-level courses in the department.

“In the classroom where no one is falling asleep, there’s better student engagement,” O’Connell said. “Faculty members tell me students are well-prepared for the upper level courses.”

Another upside to this teaching style, O’Connell said, is the focus on the essential skill of teamwork. He noted that there are very few jobs where engineers work  on a problem by themselves. Instead they work in multidisciplinary teams – often with people from different countries or with different backgrounds.

“You need to deal with the dynamic of people you don’t necessarily identify with,” O’Connell said. “You could be dealing with people from other countries.”

That possibility and the increasing importance of a global perspective also inspired him to set up a study abroad course to Ireland, O’Connell said. The summer electrical circuit theory course, which fulfills a core requirement for electrical engineering majors and can be used as an elective for other engineers, has been held at University College Dublin for the past two years.

Starting this summer, however, he is hoping to hold it  in the heart of Dublin at the historic Trinity College. O’Connell said the change will save students money on buses to and from the city.

“It’s easier to do things in the city,” he said. “This way they can get home after a night out faster and cheaper.”

O’Connell, who grew up in New York City, is also looking forward to being able to spend more time in Dublin rather than the more isolated campus a few miles south of the city. He said he usually doesn’t have very much time to enjoy himself while teaching the four-week course because he’s teaching, grading and preparing much of the time. However, the trip isn’t all about the circuit theory course — the class also visits engineering companies in Ireland, including Microsoft’s office there. Cultural excursions to different cities and historic sites are also part of the trip.

“It’s a very fascinating place,” O’Connell said. “The history is so much deeper and older over there.”