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Incorporating Active Learning Into Environmental Engineering

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Curricula II

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.870.1 - 12.870.8



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Paper Authors

author page

Tracy Thatcher Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

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

Incorporating Active Learning Into Environmental Engineering Lecture Courses Introduction

The benefits of incorporating active learning into science and engineering classes have long been recognized. Traditionally, the active learning portions of courses have been primarily relegated to laboratory and ‘discussion’ sections. However, during recent years, there has been a recognition that the same techniques that make laboratory classes so valuable can also transform the traditional lecture environment. Active learning has been shown to aid understanding and improve retention of information in a variety of courses from chemistry1 to electrical engineering2 and hydraulics3.

The redesign of courses to take advantage of what we know about learning and knowledge retention has been suggested by Furse4. As the impetus for her revision of standard teaching methods, she cites the work of David Sousa5 which summarizes the average adult retention rate for different learning methods. Lowest retention is from the typical lecture (5% retention), whereas retention from activities like discussion (50%) and teaching others (90%) are much higher. This concept can be leveraged by reformatting the typical class period and dividing the time into different activities that stimulate different types of learning and promote a deeper understanding and better retention rates. Optimally, lectures which explain the important concepts and methods would be followed by a group discussion, demonstration, or other active learning opportunity. This optimal format is designed to provide opportunities for students to ‘discover’ new ideas and refine their own understanding of complex concepts.

Although the benefits of adding active and cooperative learning to engineering lecture courses are fairly clear, many introductory environmental engineering courses are still taught primarily in a lecture format. The reasons for this are many and vary depending on the course and the instructor. When discussing this issue with colleagues, the most commonly cited concern has been that time devoted to active and cooperative learning will reduce the amount of material that can be covered in class. Since this type of introductory course typically has a large number of topics that need to be covered, it can be difficult to see how “additional” activities can be incorporated. However, it has not been our experience that this concern is a significant issue. The time required for the activities was balanced by increased comprehension, less time needed for repetition of ideas, better attentiveness during lecture periods, and an increase in preparation requirements for students before lectures.

This paper discusses a project which developed and implemented a series of active learning modules into a traditional lecture based “Introduction to Environmental Engineering” course and analyzes the results in terms of meeting the desired learning outcomes for the course. The primary learning outcomes enhanced by this change are in the areas of teamwork, communication, and problem analysis. Results from the first quarter of implementation show that the project is generally quite successful. However, as would be expected of any major course redesign, there are areas that still need further development and refinement. A course development grant from the university paid for 3 units of release time for development of the modules and about $500 in supplies.

Thatcher, T. (2007, June), Incorporating Active Learning Into Environmental Engineering Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2816

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