Asee peer logo

Use of Soil Behavior Demonstrations to Increase Student Engagement in a Soil Mechanics Course

Download Paper |


2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Use of Technology in Civil Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1598.1 - 22.1598.16



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Harry Cooke Rochester Institute of Technology

visit author page

Harry Cooke is an Associate Professor in the Civil Engineering Technology program at Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches courses in geotechnical engineering, construction materials, pavements, and mechanics of materials. His research interests include geotechnical engineering, civil engineering materials, and engineering education.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Use of Soil Behavior Demonstrations to Increase Student Engagement in a Soil Mechanics CourseAbstractAn important aspect of the geotechnical engineering discipline in civil engineering is theunderstanding of physical behaviors of different soil types. This understanding underlies andsupports the engineer’s intuition and insights on how a particular soil may impact the design andconstruction of a project. The first exposure of undergraduate civil engineering students to soilbehavior typically occurs in an introductory soil mechanics course. In this class, it is commonfor students to be taught about key soil behaviors using verbal explanations in lecture and writtenexplanations provided in textbooks, perhaps supplemented with diagrams or video. However,these approaches often do not provide students with a good “physical feel” for the behaviors andhence may not promote a deep appreciation and understanding of the topic. Even if there is alaboratory component of the course, the laboratory exercises often focus on testing proceduresfor measuring soil properties rather than a thorough exploration of soil behaviors and theircauses.The purpose of the study presented here is to investigate the effectiveness of using physicaldemonstrations of key soil behaviors in soil mechanics lectures, along with follow-updiscussions, to improve undergraduate student engagement and understanding of these behaviors.Some prior investigators have reported success in using physical demonstrations to improvestudent learning experiences in some undergraduate engineering courses. Others reported similarsuccesses in engineering exploration programs for K-12 students, some of which included soilbehavior experiments. However, none of these prior studies focus specifically on using soilbehavior demonstrations in undergraduate soil mechanics lectures to increase studentengagement and learning.In the current study, five different soil behavior demonstrations from the book Soils Magic byElton were integrated into the lectures of an undergraduate soil mechanics course. For eachdemonstration, students were first asked to predict what would happen before seeing theexperiment. They then observed the demonstration being performed and, lastly, were asked toexplain the reasons for the behavior observed. Student responses to survey statements about thesoil behavior demonstrations clearly indicate that an overwhelming majority of them felt theexperiments were interesting and effective, made them think more about the soil behaviorsinvestigated, and helped them to better understand the behaviors. Student performance on twoexaminations given during the term was generally better in the course section that used thedemonstrations, which suggests an overall improvement in learning. Student ratings of thecourse and instructor at the end of the term were higher for the class section where theexperiments were used indicating improved student perceptions of the course and, perhaps,increased student interest in the material. This encouraging study data, along with the fact thatnearly all of the students taught with the soil behavior demonstrations agreed that they should beused in future offerings of the course, confirm the effectiveness of this approach for increasingstudent engagement and learning of this topic.

Cooke, H. (2011, June), Use of Soil Behavior Demonstrations to Increase Student Engagement in a Soil Mechanics Course Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18398

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2011 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015