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Problem Based Freshman Engineering Course

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.328.1 - 2.328.4



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Paper Authors

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Michael Mahler

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Jon Szafranski

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Dawn Werner

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Karl Smith

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

Session 2530

Problem-Based Freshman Engineering Course

Karl A. Smith, Michael Mahler, Jon Szafranski, Dawn Werner University of Minnesota

Problem-based learning (PBL) is undergoing a renaissance in professional education, including engineering education (Wilkerson & Gijselaers, 1996; ASEE PRISM, 1996). PBL is not a new idea; it had its beginnings in 1969 in the MD program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. McMaster graduated it’s first PBL class in 1972. At about the same time the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University implemented a problem-based (Jones, Bieber, Echt, Scheifley & Ways, 1984). Problem-based learning was included under “reforms and innovations” in Sinclair Goodlad’s 1984 Education for the Profession (Neufeld & Chong, 1984).

We have been teaching a problem-based course— How to Model It, CE/GeoE 3700— since the mid-seventies for first year students in the Institute of Technology at the University of Minnesota. The course has always incorporated computer-based modeling technology (programming, spreadsheets and equations solvers) and recently a World Wide Web site that support the course. The course evolved to make extensive use of problem-based cooperative learning. The goal of the course is to develop students’ skill, knowledge, and confidence for thinking both quantitatively and qualitatively. The course focuses on problem formulation and representation; and on building, interpreting, explaining, presenting and evaluating mathematical and computer models.

Problem-Based Cooperative Learning

Problem-based learning results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). The process of problem-based learning in engineering was described in detail by Woods (1994) and ASEE PRISM (1996)..

Problem-based learning is very suitable for engineering (as it is for medicine, where it is currently used) because it helps students develop skills and confidence for formulating problems they've never seen before. The intellectual activity of building models to solve problems--an explicit activity of constructing or creating the qualitative or quantitative relationships--helps students understand, explain, predict, etc. (Smith and Starfield, 1993; Starfield, Smith, and Bleloch, 1994). The process of building models together in face-to-face interpersonal interaction results in learning that is difficult to achieve in any other way.

A typical format for problem-based cooperative learning is shown in Figure 1. The format illustrates the professor's role in a formal cooperative learning lesson and shows how the five essential elements of a well-structured cooperative lesson are incorporated (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1991; Smith, 1995, 1996).

Cooperative problem-solving groups typically consist of two to four members. Group membership is randomly selected and typically changes with each assignment. Problem-solving

Mahler, M., & Szafranski, J., & Werner, D., & Smith, K. (1997, June), Problem Based Freshman Engineering Course Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6741

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