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If You Let Them Build It, They Will Come: Hands On Projects For Freshmen To Enhance Student Learning

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1998 Annual Conference


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 28, 1998

Start Date

June 28, 1998

End Date

July 1, 1998



Page Count


Page Numbers

3.314.1 - 3.314.4

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James A. Newell

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

Session 2413

If You Let Them Build It, They Will Come: Hands-On Projects For Freshmen to Enhance Student Learning

James A. Newell Department of Chemical Engineering University of North Dakota Grand Forks, ND 58202-7101


The heart of engineering education is to facilitate the development of bright, creative students into highly skilled problem solvers. However, in many cases, students receive little contact with actual engineering problems or any “hands-on” experience until their sophomore or junior years. It is impossible to estimate how many potential talented engineers leave the major because of the lack of visible application for the chemistry, physics, and calculus that dominate their freshman year.

Christiansen1 observes that “the aim of teaching is not only to transmit information, but to transform students from passive recipients of other people’s knowledge into active constructors of their own.” One mechanism for attaining this goal is to involve engineering students in “hands-on” projects as early as their freshman year. The benefits of such an activity are clear and many. Ohlsson 2 argues that the key to effective teaching is to emphasize the process of acquiring and applying disciplinary knowledge. Through these projects, students will have the opportunity to apply the knowledge that they have obtained in their preparatory courses.

However, it is not sufficient to simply assign a “pre-packaged” hands-on activity. To maximize the educational benefits of the project, students must be involved in all stages including project selection and scheduling. Fosnot 3 observes that learning occurs “through engagement in problem posing as well as problem solving, inference making and investigating, resolving of contradictions, and reflecting.” Therefore, a complete educational experience would require student involvement in all phases of the project.

At the University of North Dakota, second semester freshmen take an Introduction to Chemical Engineering course that focuses on development of problem solving strategies and provides an overview of chemical engineering as a major and a career. This course uses the exceptional textbook “Strategies for Creative Problem Solving” by Fogler and Leblanc4 as a guide and a hands-on project serves as the major experience of the semester. The various presentations (oral, poster, written report) that result from these project serve as the basis for the majority of the grade in the class. The students have covered most of the material in the textbook prior to undertaking the major steps in the project. The freshmen are involved in seven distinct phases of this project. These phases are:

Newell, J. A. (1998, June), If You Let Them Build It, They Will Come: Hands On Projects For Freshmen To Enhance Student Learning Paper presented at 1998 Annual Conference, Seattle, Washington.

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