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Creating a Learning Environment that Supports Innovation and Deep Learning in Geotechnical Engineering

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Hey You: Effectively Engaging Students in the Classroom

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.351.1 - 25.351.24



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Paper Authors


Glenn W. Ellis Smith College

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Glenn Ellis is a professor of engineering at Smith College who teaches courses in engineering science and methods for teaching science and engineering. He received his Ph.D. in civil engineering and operations research from Princeton University. The winner of numerous teaching awards, Ellis 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. His research focuses on creating K-16 learning environments that support the growth of learners’ imaginations and their capacity for engaging in collaborative knowledge work.

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Creating a Learning Environment that Supports Innovation and Deep Learning in Geotechnical EngineeringThere is a growing consensus that engineering education needs to evolve to meet the changingdemands on the profession. In addition to learning traditional content areas and becomingcompetent in applying standard problem-solving procedures, graduates also need to develop adeep and integrated understanding of complex subjects; excellent communication skills; theability to participate in demanding discourse in multicultural environments; a capacity forlifelong learning; and most importantly, the ability to work creatively with ideas to generate newtheories, products and knowledge.In an attempt to address these challenges, this paper presents the application of three approachesto teaching and learning within the context of an introductory geotechnical engineering course(EGR 340). In spite of their grounding in the learning sciences, these approaches remain largelyunexplored in engineering education. The first is the use of Imaginative Education as developedby Kieran Egan. In Imaginative Education cognitive tools associated with the development ofunderstanding are used to engage student imagination and frame learning. In EGR 340narratives addressing what Egan terms Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic and Ironic understandingwere used. Examples include learning about soil stresses within the context of quicksandbehavior, bringing in the rich history and colorful personalities of the field, and using a theoreticnarrative to frame concepts in productive ways. A second approach is the use of knowledgebuilding. In knowledge building students participate in an interactive discourse in which theywork together to broaden ideas, reform problems and share knowledge—the result being adeeper level of understanding and the collaborative production of new knowledge. In EGR 340knowledge building was used to explore the impact of global climate change on geotechnicalengineering. A third approach is the use of what Schwartz, Bransford and Sears refer to asPreparation for Future Learning (PFL) to assess deep learning and the ability to innovate. InEGR 340 students completed a PFL assessment on the feasibility of building a gas station in theBack Bay of Boston. To help students develop the deep understanding that PFL assessmentsattempt to measure, standard efficiency approaches to learning were balanced with innovativelearning activities. Examples include a laboratory in which students explored soil stresses andwater pressures in quicksand and designed a new Atterberg Limits test.The effectiveness of these approaches to learning in EGR 340 was assessed by a variety ofmethods including two independently administered surveys. The first survey was administeredthrough the Smith College Course Critique System and indicated broad student satisfaction withthe methods used in the course. The second survey was administered anonymously on-line onthe last day of classes and consisted of Likert Scale and open-ended questions. Examples ofstudent responses indicate that they found the course to be different from their other courses; thatthey felt they learned deeply; and that the narratives were engaging and effective. Finally,student work—including the knowledge building database, theoretic narratives and conceptmaps—will be presented and analyzed.

Ellis, G. W. (2012, June), Creating a Learning Environment that Supports Innovation and Deep Learning in Geotechnical Engineering Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21109

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