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A Learner Centered Approach For Preparing At Risk Students

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Programmatic Issues in Physics or Engineering Physics Programs

Tagged Division

Engineering Physics & Physics

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.54.1 - 13.54.24



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Paper Authors


Glenn Ellis Smith College

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Dr. Ellis is an Associate Professor of Engineering at Smith College. He received his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering and Operations Research from Princeton University. Now in his seventh year at Smith College, Dr. Ellis teaches courses in engineering mechanics, artificial intelligence and educational methods for teaching science and engineering. He has published numerous papers on K-16 engineering education and works with various organizations on issues of educational reform. The winner of numerous teaching awards, Dr. Ellis recently received the 2007 U.S. Professor of the Year Award for Baccalaureate Colleges from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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Mary Moriarty Smith College


Gary Felder Smith College

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Dr. Felder received his undergraduate degree in physics from Oberlin College and his PhD in physics from Stanford University. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto, after which he began work at Smith College where he is currently an assistant professor. In addition to his physics research he has published several papers on engineering education in collaboration with his father Richard Felder of NCSU.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

A Learner-Centered Approach for Preparing At-Risk Students for Success in Engineering


The Picker Engineering Program, established in 2000, is the first engineering program at an all- women’s college in the United States. One of its aims is to develop learner-centered pedagogies that better attract, educate and retain women in engineering. In their first year at Smith, prospective engineering majors take calculus, physics, chemistry, and computer science, as well as a project-based introduction to engineering. The first engineering course with rigorous scientific content is EGR 270, Continuum Mechanics, which students take in the fall of their sophomore year. Since the program’s inception we have found that a number of students struggle in this course because of difficulties with pre-calculus math skills, calculus and physics.

This paper presents the rationale, content, pedagogy and assessment of a one-week course designed to help academically at-risk engineering students in the summer before their sophomore year. The primary goal of the course, Physics and Engineering Problem Solving, is to deepen conceptual understanding and to improve problem-solving skills for selected topics in physics and engineering. A secondary goal is to facilitate the development of a relationship between the participants and Smith’s Quantitative Learning Center (QLC). To achieve these goals, the course was developed using learner-centered strategies that are based upon both cognitive and social cognitive theories about learning.

In cognitive theory, learners are seen as constantly building a mental representation or cognitive structure that models their world. This theory suggests that a lecture approach to teaching is not likely to encourage meaningful learning in any but the most highly motivated learners. It also suggests that learning proceeds better when students have a conception of the learning outcomes they are seeking and employ metacognitive skills of self-monitoring and self-regulation to achieve them. To develop these learning outcomes for Physics and Engineering Problem Solving, physics and engineering faculty worked together to identify key content and skills necessary for success in EGR 270 and the engineering program in general. These intended learning outcomes are discussed in Section II and presented in detail in Appendix A. They include understanding motion graphs; plotting integrals and derivatives of a function; improving algebra and trigonometry skills; applying problem-solving strategies including units and limits evaluation; drawing and applying free-body diagrams; and developing a better conceptual understanding of integration and the skills to apply it.

Social cognitive theory suggests that engagement often happens in a context in which students encounter the thinking of others. In this view, learners construct knowledge only after they encounter and use the knowledge in a social context and with the help of scaffolding provided by more knowledgeable individuals. Providing a supportive collaborative environment for this to occur may be particularly critical to the success of women—who are underrepresented and particularly at risk in the engineering classroom. In their study of thousands of women engineering students from 53 institutions, Goodman et al.1 found that women leaving

Ellis, G., & Moriarty, M., & Felder, G. (2008, June), A Learner Centered Approach For Preparing At Risk Students Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4127

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2008 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015