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Empty Handed Demonstrations For Engineers: Think Inside The Box

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Tricks of the Trade

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.528.1 - 10.528.13



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Paper Authors

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Susan Freeman

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Beverly Jaeger

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Maurice Aburdene

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

Empty-Handed Demonstr ations for Engineer s: Think Inside the Box Maurice F. Aburdene*, Beverly Jaeger , Susan Freeman *Bucknell University, Northeastern University

Abstract Recently there has been much emphasis on the inclusion of technology to improve student learning in engineering and this has proven to be very effective in a variety of engineering courses. The objective of this paper is to supplement technology-based education by teaching fundamental concepts using "empty- handed" demonstrations. This instructive technique is defined as one that is accomplished by using whatever is typically available in or near traditional classrooms and by simulating concepts with students and/or faculty as system components. The defining feature of this strategy is that it does not require special equipment or software to clarify fundamental engineering concepts. Empty-handed demonstrations are dynamic, illustrative and interactive, and increase course effectiveness. Forms of active learning that engage the students beyond lecture have been shown to have lasting value in the students' memory (Bransford et al., 2000; Felder & Brent, 2003). Our ambition is to generate a conference session to demonstrate, share, compile, and catalog some of these no-tech teaching tools. Our secondary objective is to stimulate engineering educators to think “inside the box” of the classroom and realize that, with some ingenuity, the world around us is replete with modeling and teaching opportunities. This paper provides several examples of empty-handed demos from a variety of engineering disciplines describing the goals, materials and set up, implementation strategies, and the inspiration and lessons for each demonstration.

Introduction Much of the classic learning model is about the acquisition of knowledge and its subsequent application. Effective education provides a means for students to absorb and comprehend relevant information so that they can retain and apply that knowledge. The undisputed fundamental components of engineering education are those that are described in textbooks and those that we, as professors, introduce in our lectures and labs. Sometimes having the students read books and listen to lectures is not enough and thus greater depth and challenge must be provided in their education. Depth of understanding has often been provided by encouraging the students to become personally involved in activities that simulate or mirror the circumstances under discussion. This teaching strategy is similar to techniques of interactive engagement (IE) referred to by Hake (1998). Hake maintains that "the use of IE strategies can increase course effectiveness beyond that obtained with traditional methods."

Strategies of active engagement and active learning, while beneficial in their instructive qualities, can be prohibitive unless they efficiently and effectively carried out, with minimal cost to the engineering program. It is preferable to keep them simple in content to avoid the educational messages being lost in the complexity of the set up. An ideal example of this is the human histogram created in an engineering statistics course at the University of Oklahoma to illustrate birthday distributions and related probability measures (Rhoads, 2004). The students physically line up in categories to form and observe the birthday frequency distribution. They use their own birth date data to calculate the relevant probability measures and confirm established equations related to these statistics.

In this paper, we consider situations -like the statistics example above- that have been found to be problematic for student comprehension and provide examples of activities that have been successfully applied to illustrate course topics. We shown how everyday examples in life and ordinary materials in our immediate surroundings can be used to illustrate broad engineering principles and inspire engineering ingenuity. They are described as “empty-handed demos” because each exercise described requires no or minimal materials to conduct and none requires technology. Furthermore, the professor remains virtually empty-handed throughout the presentations, primarily driving and supervising the activity and allowing the students’ participation, observations, and experiences to catalyze the learning process.

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

Freeman, S., & Jaeger, B., & Aburdene, M. (2005, June), Empty Handed Demonstrations For Engineers: Think Inside The Box Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--14612

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