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Developing an Effective and Engaging Concept-driven Approach to Teaching Structural Design

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

The Evolving Classroom

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Joel Lanning P.E. University of California, Irvine Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Joel Lanning​ specializes in​ seismic design of civil structures such as bridges and buildings. His research focuses on the development of tools and methods used in structural design and those used in experimental physical testing aimed at improving structural resilience during an earthquake. He is passionate about teaching and is also focused on research and development of strategies to use in the classroom. His teaching philosophy includes building a strong learning community within each class and the use of high-impact practices to engage and challenge his students. ​

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Structural engineering students are expected to have a very well developed understanding of structural design upon graduating. However, many students achieve only a low level of understanding with design abilities amounting to “plug-and-chug”. This might be the product of the combination of two factors. First, commonly instructors only use traditional teacher-centered direct instructional practices (e.g. only lecturing and writing out equations/problems). Second, many instructors try to cover too many different topics and scenarios, necessitating a focus on process and on picking the correct design equations. Perhaps this is in an attempt to prepare students for practice where structures can take on any shape, and there a plethora of design items to check. However, this instructional style combined with an overemphasis on application of prescribed design equations sends students the wrong message - design is about knowing how to apply equations. Not only is this style disengaging but it misdirects study away from developing a strong conceptual understanding of the basic design equations, of their parts, and of design philosophy overall. A solid conceptual knowledge will ultimately allow students to navigate more complex problems and more intricate portions of design specifications later on in their professional careers. With this opinion in mind, this paper discusses and outlines an approach to teaching structural design courses rooted in methods that are well documented in education research. This includes changing the focus of lectures to the underlying physical concepts behind design specification equations, assigning homework problems which emphasize analyzing trends within and between structural behavior and specification equations, and adding concept-targeted lab experiments (or data analysis assignments to mimic experiments). Examples are provided for a course in steel design, but this approach is certainly applicable to design courses on other structural materials, like reinforced concrete or timber. Going beyond simply making course material suggestions, this paper seeks interested collaborators to join the author in a larger research and dissemination effort. The goal is to have this group develop and distribute two nation-wide surveys to understand and document (i) what design skills are desired by the industry of newly graduated engineers, (ii) what and how instructors are teaching, and (iii) how these two align. Additionally, this group will collaborate on developing (i) concept-focused course materials and methods, (ii) a standardized structural design concept inventory for pre- and post-course assessment, and (iii) course assessment data collection over a wide range of institutions. The goal of all these efforts is to establish an effective and engaging concept-driven approach to teaching structural design which is backed up by convincing quantitative and qualitative evidence.

Lanning, J. (2018, June), Developing an Effective and Engaging Concept-driven Approach to Teaching Structural Design Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30295

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