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Active Learning Pedagogies Promoting the Art of Structural and Civil Engineering

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Civil Engineering Division Technical Session 9

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.151.1 - 26.151.11



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Paper Authors


Aatish Bhatia Princeton University

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Aatish Bhatia is an Associate Director (Engineering Education) in Princeton University's Council on Science and Technology. He works with faculty in engineering and related disciplines on incorporating active learning in the classroom and bringing science and engineering to a wider audience.

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Peter Christopher Chen

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Active  Learning  Pedagogies  Promoting  the  Art  of  Structural  and  Civil  Engineering    Students  who  switch  out  of  STEM  majors  frequently  cite  uninspiring  introductory  lecture  courses  and  poor  teaching  as  among  the  primary  reasons  for  this  decision.  An  active  learning  approach  to  teaching  (i.e.  one  that  emphasizes  learning  by  doing)  has  been  shown  to  improve  student  retention  in  STEM,  as  well  as  increase  student  motivation  and  interest.  Students  taught  using  active  learning  remember  more,  and  are  better  able  to  apply  their  knowledge.  Motivated  by  these  findings,  we  report  on  our  progress  in  updating  the  design  curriculum  of  a  large  introductory  engineering  class  using  active  learning  and  interactive  teaching  methods.  The  elements  of  this  course  and  interactive  exercises  that  we  develop  will  be  made  available  for  wider  dissemination  and  adoption  through  workshops  and  an  online  repository  of  materials.    Structures  in  the  Urban  Environment  is  a  large-­enrollment  introductory  course  that  introduces  liberal  arts  and  engineering  students  to  the  creative  discipline  of  civil  and  structural  engineering  through  case  studies  of  the  works  of  great  engineers  and  designers  who  innovated  new  forms  of  structural  art.  A  central  focus  of  this  course  is  for  students  to  experience  engineering  as  a  creative  discipline,  allowing  for  aesthetic  exploration  within  a  set  of  constraints.  Students  examine  the  interplay  between  elegance  and  efficiency,  and  explore  the  idea  of  structural  art.    We  incorporated  the  use  of  the  Westpoint  Bridge  Designer  simulation  software  to  this  course  to  help  students  visualize  how  forces  flow  through  the  structures  they  encounter  in  class.  Additionally,  we  incorporated  physical  models  and  kinesthetic  activities  allowing  students  to  develop  a  physical  intuition  for  concepts  like  the  cantilever  principle  in  the  Firth  of  Forth  bridge,  or  the  relation  between  base  size  and  resistance  to  overturning  moment  in  the  Eiffel  Tower.  These  activities  illustrate  how  structures  respond  to  loads,  highlighting  the  different  elements  in  compression  and  in  tension,  and  provide  insights  into  how  structures  can  be  optimized  for  greater  safety  and  efficiency.    This  culminates  in  a  virtual  bridge  design  competition  conducted  in  recitation  (to  complement  a  physical  bridge  design  competition  in  lab),  where  students  apply  the  principles  of  optimization  they  have  learned,  and  compete  to  design  bridges  that  are  both  efficient  and  elegant.  The  active  learning  exercises  that  we  present  include  think-­pair-­share  questions,  interactive  lecture  demonstrations,  and  project  based  learning  through  interactive  simulations.  These  exercises  promote  collaborative  learning  and  peer  teaching,  provide  formative  assessment  for  the  instructor,  and  can  easily  be  implemented  in  a  classroom  setting.    One  of  our  overarching  goals  with  this  course  is  to  help  correct  false  perceptions  that  engineers  are  largely  ‘technicians’,  as  opposed  to  creative  artists.  We  will  be  conducting  interviews  to  research  the  effect  of  this  belief  on  STEM  enrollment  and  attrition.  Another  overarching  goal  is  to  catalyze  the  adoption  of  these  materials  across  diverse  institutions,  to  engage  a  broader  and  more  diverse  audience  in  the  art  of  structural  and  civil  engineering.  We  will  also  be  assessing  the  effectiveness  of  these  active  learning  based  course  enhancements  and  the  adoption  of  these  materials  in  other  institutions.  

Bhatia, A., & Chen, P. C. (2015, June), Active Learning Pedagogies Promoting the Art of Structural and Civil Engineering Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23490

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