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Active Problem-based Learning on Nano-amended Cement Composites for Nuclear Waste Storage for Civil and Environmental Engineering Undergraduate Students

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Innovative Pedagogies for Facilitating Student-driven Learning Experiences

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Civil Engineering

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Paper Authors

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Caroline Haggard


Fabio Matta

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Dr. Fabio Matta is an Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Carolina (USC), where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on civil engineering materials, structural mechanics, and infrastructure repair. His research focuses on hazard-resilient construction, novel cement composites, and corrosion characterization and monitoring. Funding sources include DOE, NIST, NSF, and a number of utilities through the Centre for Energy Advancement through Technological Innovation (CEATI). Dr. Matta has published over 90 papers in refereed journals and conference proceedings, and several articles in professional magazines. Prior to joining USC, he served as the Associate Director of the NSF I/UCRC for the Integration of Composites into Infrastructure, and contributed to overseeing industry- and federally-funded projects on advanced composite and cement-based materials and structures. Dr. Matta serves as a member of ACI Committee 446 (Fracture Mechanics of Concrete), ACI Committee 440 (FRP Reinforcement), and associate editor of the ASCE Journal of Bridge Engineering, ASCE Journal of Composites for Construction, and ASCE Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering.

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Charles E. Pierce University of South Carolina

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Dr. Pierce is the Director for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Carolina. He is a USC Connect Faculty Fellow for Integrative Learning, and a Bell South Teaching Fellow in the College of Engineering and Computing. Dr. Pierce also serves as the ASEE Campus Representative for USC.

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For two consecutive years (fall 2014 and 2015), two weeks of the civil engineering materials laboratory course at the University of South Carolina were dedicated for a student-centered, problem-based learning (PBL) module about nanomaterials in cement composites. Implementation of this module was part of a larger curriculum enhancement and faculty development project to integrate student learning of nanotechnology using a PBL network of courses. The project goal was to elevate knowledge of and elicit critical thinking in the complex and increasingly important area of nanomaterial applications in civil and environmental engineering.

Specifically, this module was designed to address the challenge with student understanding of the nanoscale. Students were presented with a current problem set in the context of nano-amended cement composites for below-ground nuclear waste storage at a local site, where leaching is of concern. The driving question, for which students were asked to estimate a solution, was “What is the amount, using wt% as units, of multiwalled carbon nanotubes needed to attain at least a 20% increase in compressive strength in Type I ordinary Portland cement mortar?” This question was presented in a decision worksheet that was completed as individuals and in teams before and after strengthening their understanding of fundamental concepts through active learning exercises.

This paper reports on the salient results of this two-year experience. It discusses and demonstrates how student illustrations and written evidence from decision worksheets and active learning exercises were used for a qualitative assessment of: (a) recognition of relevant concrete properties (prior knowledge); (b) student learning of fundamental nanomaterial properties (new knowledge); (c) an understanding of the nanoscale in the given problem context; and (d) how students in teams influence each other’s learning processes in a collaborative PBL environment.

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