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Engaging Students In Critical Thinking: An Environmental Engineering Effect

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Engaging Students

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.471.1 - 15.471.10



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Paper Authors


Nicole Berge University of South Carolina

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Dr. Nicole Berge received her BS and MS degrees in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of South Carolina in 1999 and 2001, respectively. In 2006, she received her PhD in Environmental Engineering from the University of Central Florida. From 2006 – 2008, Dr. Berge worked as a Postdoctoral Associate at Tufts University. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina.

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Joseph Flora University of South Carolina

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Dr. Joseph Flora is currently an Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina. He received his BS degree in Civil Engineering from the University of the Philippines in 1987 and his MS degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1990. In 1993, Dr. Flora received his PhD in Environmental Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Flora has been at the University of South Carolina since 1993.

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

Engaging Students in Critical Thinking: An Environmental Engineering EFFECT


Engineering education research suggests that undergraduate engineering education should evolve from traditional lecture style instruction to models involving student centered (or active learning) techniques, such as collaborative, inquiry, and problem-based learning. Incorporation of activities invoking student involvement during class meetings has been shown to foster development of critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as creativity and innovation, while enhancing retention of course material.1-5 The type of activity employed will likely dictate the degree of critical thinking and problem solving skill development, as well as the degree of material retention.

Integration of such activities may occur within a class meeting (such as relatively short activities) or may play a more major role. Short activities that periodically engage students during class break up the monotony of traditional lectures and likely provide an opportunity for students “to start fresh again”.6 Inquiry-based activities have been incorporated into undergraduate laboratory classes.1,7,8 During these activities, the students are responsible for posing a question, hypothesizing the outcome, developing an experiment to test their hypothesis, analyze data, and report their results. Activities of this type have been shown to increase learning and improve the overall laboratory experience.7,8 Martin et al.3 compared student performance in an inquiry-based and traditional lecture style biomedical engineering course. Results indicated that the degree of student acquired core knowledge did not differ between the instructional techniques, but students in the inquiry-based course demonstrated significant improvement in “innovative thinking abilities.” These observations were corroborated by Leon-Rovira et al.9; the authors also found that student creativity was enhanced as a result of integration of active/inquiry-based techniques. Problem-based learning approaches have also been employed and resulted in positive student feedback.6 Some curricula are integrating entire courses (predominantly upper level design courses) based on such techniques. Quinn and Albano4 report on a problem-based learning course (i.e., senior year project) in structural engineering in which student feedback is positive. A problem-based capstone senior design course being taught at the University of South Carolina is an important aspect of the curriculum. During this course, students are grouped into multi-disciplinary teams and provided a design problem. The timing of such activities is also critical. Mullins et al.10 found that even after one semester of a freshman engineering program, student’s design processes (i.e., problem solving time, more iterative approach) significantly improved, although the overall quality of the design did not. Cardella et al.11 observed mixed results when comparing student designs as freshman with those when they are seniors. Two of the students showed improvement, while two did not.

At the University of South Carolina (USC), we incorporated active learning exercises to enhance critical thinking skills in an elective introductory civil engineering course (ECIV 101: Introduction to Civil Engineering). The course was restricted to incoming freshmen. The course introduces students to different civil engineering sub-disciplines, including structural, geotechnical, water resources, transportation, environmental engineering, and surveying. Each

Berge, N., & Flora, J. (2010, June), Engaging Students In Critical Thinking: An Environmental Engineering Effect Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16702

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