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A Connected Course Approach for Introduction to Engineering Problem Solving

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

ERM Technical Session 18: Student Learning and Problem Solving

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Anthony Ferrar Temple University

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Tony Ferrar is obsessed with student success. He focuses on preparing students for rewarding careers through pedagogical innovation and incorporating professional development into educational experiences. Anthony received his BS, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech, where his research revolved around air-breathing propulsion. As a graduate student he contributed to Virginia Tech’s Graduate Education Development Institute, Faculty Development Institute, and Networked Learning Initiatives. After graduating in 2015, he joined the BEARS Lab (B&E Applied Research and Science) in the nuclear engineering program at the University of Florida as postdoctoral researcher where he investigated spent fuel storage and cancer treatment. Throughout his graduate and postdoctoral experiences he participated in teaching, student mentorship, and faculty development as an instructor and advocate for learning innovation. He joined the Temple University faculty in 2015, where he focuses on Engineering Entrepreneurship, Social Networking and Connections in Higher Education, Peer-to-Peer Mentorship, and Open and Inclusive Education.

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Pete Watkins Temple University

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Pete Watkins is an Associate Director in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching where he facilitates faculty development programming on a range of topics including a focus on online learning. In addition, he is a faculty member in the Teaching in Higher Education Certificate. He has worked in higher education since 2000 and has extensive teaching experience, both face-to-face and online, as well as expertise in course design, curriculum development and accreditation. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, a master's degree in social work from Temple University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Temple University. He has a particular interest in using cognitive science to inform and improve college teaching. Pete believes that excellent teachers continually grow, develop and learn from one another.

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This Work in Progress paper summarizes preliminary results following a connected course approach to teaching problem solving to first-year engineering students. Using computer coding as a vehicle, the goal of the course was to enhance students’ ability to solve real-world problems which fall outside of the realm of their prior experience. The course taught design-thinking, opportunity recognition, and customer discovery in collaboration with the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, housed in the College of Business. Students identified a problem, empathized with actual customers through interviews, defined a specific problem that could be solved with software, brainstormed solutions, created prototype smart phone apps, and tested them on intended customers.

The course format utilized a single, large section which met in a lecture hall. Enrollment during the pilot year involved 140 students during the first semester, 240 during the second. In an effort to scale individual attention, students were placed in groups during the first week and assigned an Undergraduate TA mentor. These mentors attended class, sat with their groups, monitored the individual students’ progress, provided feedback and support. Each student group was tasked with defining a semester project, which they presented in a “pitch competition” during the final week of the course.

Class time was divided between concept-level lectures, guest talks, and team-building activities. Concepts discussed in class involved computer programming topics such as variables, data types, console I/O, functions, debugging, operators, conditional code, flow control, loops, and objects. Guest talks brought local industry representatives to give the students real-world problems and present various engineering career options that first-year students could aspire to. Students solved problems in class with their groups.

Outside of class, students interacted with an elaborate open-source tutorial platform. They worked through modules which taught them to code in JavaScript, Python, Java, and Swift. These interactive modules fed into an assignment system that enabled students to solve problems and receive feedback in real time. The students were supported by an Undergraduate TA team of 40 3rd and 4th year students who offered walk-in support during regular business hours and online interactions after hours seven days a week. The course content was largely produced by students, for students, and iterated on to maximize its effectiveness.

The typical student entering this course had little to no coding experience. By the end of the course, every team demonstrated a working desktop or mobile app which they had conceived, learned to code, designed user interfaces, and tested on potential customers. In addition, students learned college success skills such as time management, self-paced learning, seeking information outside of their experience, teamwork, and persistence.

Ferrar, A., & Watkins, P. (2019, June), A Connected Course Approach for Introduction to Engineering Problem Solving Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--31949

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