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Engaging Students With the Creative Art of Civil Engineering

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Viewpoints, Perspectives, and Creativity in Civil Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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Paper Authors


Aatish Bhatia Princeton University

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Aatish Bhatia is an Associate Director (Engineering Education) in Princeton University's Council on Science and Technology. He works with faculty in engineering and related disciplines on incorporating active learning in the classroom and bringing science and engineering to a wider audience.

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Maria E. Garlock P.E. Princeton University

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Maria Garlock is an Associate Professor at Princeton University in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering where she is the Director of the Architecture and Engineering Program. Her scholarship is in resilient building design and in studies of the best examples of structural designs of the present and past. She has co-authored the book Felix Candela: Engineer, Builder, Structural Artist and has recently launched a MOOC titled "The Art of Structural Engineering: Bridges."

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Evelyn Hanna Laffey Princeton University

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Dr. Evelyn Hanna Laffey is the Associate Director of the Princeton University Council on Science and Technology. Previously, she served as the Assistant Dean for Engineering Education at the Rutgers University School of Engineering. She has a bachelors degree in mathematics and doctorate in mathematics education from Rutgers University. She has over fifteen years of experience working with K-16 students and educators. She is interested in exploring the intersection of cognition, affect, and identity within STEM education and operationalizing research findings to provide an excellent and equitable education to all students.

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We report on the progress of a multi-institutional NSF-funded education project called the Creative Art of Structural and Civil Engineering. The specific goals of the project are to: 1. Transform an introductory engineering course with dramatically improved interactivity and accessibility for students of all backgrounds and majors; 2. Ensure that the course takes a form that can be readily adopted into the engineering and general education curricula of many types of institutions of higher learning; 3. Facilitate the dissemination, adoption, and continuous improvement of these course materials and teaching methods.

In this report, we focus on the version of this course taught at Princeton University, Structures and the Urban Environment. The course examines the great works of engineers through case studies, critically evaluating them on scientific and aesthetic grounds, as well as analyzing the social context in which these works arose. For example, the minimal and sleek reinforced concrete bridges of Robert Maillart, or the ultra-lightweight thin-shell structures built by Félix Candela highlight how engineers can innovate with new materials to develop new aesthetic forms. Furthermore, by integrating efficiency, economy, and elegance, these works stress the importance of finding optimal forms for structures, and demonstrate how great works of engineering can be well-integrated into their environment.

This project is relevant to the wider civil engineering community as it serves to engage a wide student body in understanding and appreciating the role of civil engineers in society. Furthermore, by spreading inspiring and engaging introductory course materials that adopt research-based teaching methods, integrate STEM with the humanities, and emphasize the social relevance, technical challenges, and creative aspects of the discipline, this project helps meet an urgent need to improve the retention of students in STEM disciplines.

Since the launch of this project, our activities have included: developing, incorporating, and documenting active learning exercises and lecture materials; developing and analyzing student surveys, and conducting interviews and focus groups; identifying themes and learning goals; developing a website to disseminate teaching materials; organizing an annual workshop for universities interested in adopting course materials and teaching methods; and continuing to mentor workshop participants.

We adapted the Student Assessment of Learning Gains survey to assess learning outcomes. In the first year of implementing this project, a large majority of students reported moderate, good, or great learning gains from lecture demonstrations (94%), the instructional approach taken in the class (90%), and hands-on activities (83%). With regard to course themes, 80% or more of students reported moderate to great learning gains in evaluating significant works of civil engineering based on their social, scientific and symbolic importance; relating the forms of structures they encounter in daily life to their function and to forces; possessing an aesthetic and technical appreciation for bridges, towers, shells, and other structures; and comparing, contrasting, and critiquing structures as works of structural art. These results highlight the efficacy of the teaching methods adopted and active learning exercises developed and implemented in this project.

Bhatia, A., & Garlock, M. E., & Laffey, E. H. (2016, June), Engaging Students With the Creative Art of Civil Engineering Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26977

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