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Inquiry-Based Learning to Explore the Design of the Built Environment

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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

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies: Best Papers

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Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Anahid Behrouzi University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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Anahid Behrouzi is a doctoral student of civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has been involved with STEM education beginning in 2003 as a volunteer and summer instructor with the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science. She has been engaged with undergraduate/ graduate course delivery in the topic areas of engineering problem-solving, structural engineering, and reinforced concrete design at North Carolina State University (2008-2011), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2012-2015), and Tufts University (2015-present). She has a BS in civil engineering and BA in Spanish language & literature from North Carolina State University, and a MS in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Daniel Kuchma Tufts University

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Dan Kuchma is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Tufts University. He obtained his PhD from the University of Toronto, and was a professor at the University of Illinois from CEE from 1997-2014. He serves in professional capacities at the American Concrete Institute, the International Concrete Federation, and the International Electrotechnical Commission. He areas of academic interest include the design, modeling, and analysis of structures, and how students can gain insight into structural engineering through demonstrations and hands-on experiences.

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Typically in introductory structural engineering courses with a lab component, the instructional approach is to present the underlying theory via pre-lab lecture/reading and subsequently have students conduct guided experiments that affirm that theory. The new Fall 2015 course offering described in this paper takes the reverse approach where students’ hands-on exploration of a concept occurs prior to formal instruction. As such, the course is based upon Da Vinci’s perspective that: “[i]n the examination of physical problems I begin by making a few experiments,…we must commence with experience, and strive by means of it to discover truth.”

In the course, student exploration of fundamental structural engineering concepts was facilitated through the following activities: • Full-class physical demonstrations led by the instructor during lecture • Small-group experimentation in a laboratory setting • Case studies highlighting both failures and exemplary natural/engineered structures presented via instructor lectures and supplementary multi-media materials

The paper describes the open-ended course framework where instructors posed targeted questions for students/teams to investigate based on the demonstrations, experiments and case studies. The students explored these questions in the manner they (individually or in teams) deem appropriate, while documenting relevant quantitative and qualitative observations in their lab notebooks. Reflecting on their gathered information, students developed evidence-based responses to the questions. These learning exercises were followed by instructor-facilitated discussion where students/teams share their observations and collaboratively draw conclusions that point towards related engineering theory. Finally, the instructor formally defined the associated theory.

The objective of this paper is demonstrate how the “exploration before theory” approach can be implemented and what is required to accomplish the hands-on, inquiry, discussion, and formal teaching aspects that comprise this teaching style. Associated with this objective, the authors also share student feedback on the course that will be collected through mid- and end-of-semester surveys for about twenty undergraduate students. These surveys solicited student input on the inquiry-based learning atmosphere as well as individual course activities. The authors believe that a classroom environment that emphasizes discovery – where students act as researchers and play an active role in building their own knowledge – is a format that can be readily adapted to other engineering disciplines; furthermore, it can inspire higher-level thinking and lead to a more engaging learning experience.

Behrouzi, A., & Kuchma, D. (2016, June), Inquiry-Based Learning to Explore the Design of the Built Environment Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25725

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