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Talk About Teaching and Learning
October 20, 2009, Volume 56, No. 08

Education for Generation Y

Mark Yim

As technology evolves, the curricula of many fields need to change to stay up-to-date. In my field of Mechanical Engineering, and I suspect others, the pace of this change is increasing. Fisch et al. state that the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented... in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”1 It is easy to think that more needs to be taught to students. In fact, we may need to do the opposite. In an extensive study of undergraduate engineering education, Sheppard concluded that “the heavy emphasis on stuffing students with technical knowledge is, in a sense, outdated. Of course, engineers should gain technical depth, but not to the extent that it crowds out the opportunity to learn engineering in the real—and really complex—world.” 2

For teachers outside of engineering as well as inside, it is evident that technology changes culture, and thus impacts the effectiveness of communication. Today‚ students (even outside of engineering) are raised on different technology than the people who teach them. Brown and Hagel describe this effect as “push vs. pull” in the information age.3 While most professors grew up watching TV (where information was “pushed” to them), today undergraduates are accustomed to interactive games and the Internet, “pulling” whatever content they desire. Education set in this pull model can be more engaging for a broader set of students as more will find it familiar.

To address this issue in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) we have started to use more design and hands-on activities throughout a student’s undergraduate career. These are projects that challenge students to take initiative and seek out and apply information in order to address specific problems. We call this the Practice Integrated Curriculum (PIC). Many of the MEAM faculty and I have written a paper about this curriculum for the American Society of Engineering Education, some of which is echoed here. 4

A key aspect of PIC is that during a semester, a lab course runs parallel to “theory” courses. These lab courses integrate concepts from several courses with practical projects. These project-based courses coordinate both across semesters and even across years. There is a yearly progression where tools (such as software analysis and data acquisition) and skills (such as fabrication techniques and writing) build upon each other.

This progression is modeled after raising children where the ultimate goal is to have independent adults functioning in society. The project-based courses start with young toddler-like learning, following simple instructions, and exploring the world. Freshman activities emphasize the testing of established principles in mechanics and introduce connections to current engineering phenomena. For sophomores, learning is characterized by increasing freedom in exploration, and projects begin to introduce design in constrained spaces using pattern synthesis. In junior year the projects become open ended; design challenges and experimental projects have less instruction and more problem context, leaving the solution space open for students to explore and solve.

Toward the end of junior year, the students are given projects as problems with no background theory. They are not even told where to find information. They are open to any source for help for solutions, textbooks, professors, the internet, or friends. We try to break the students from thinking that asking for help or giving help to a classmate is cheating. The projects are structured in such a way that there is no single right answer, and students can teach each other as they go.

The trick is often finding a topic for the project which is difficult enough that all students can be deeply engaged, but not in a way in which makes it frustrating, and all the while remaining pedagogically effective and relevant. Often the teaching staff doesn’t know the optimal answer; we all learn empirically as we go. Many of the projects change each year to ensure relevancy, so this exploration continues.

For example, in one open-ended project, (there are typically five per semester), the students were asked to design a vibration absorber in the context of a camera to be mounted on a known vibrating source. As part of the process the students were to propose a design before building anything. I was surprised to see that most had come up with ideas that would never work. Believing that students learn more from failure than success, I instructed the students that they had to implement their proposed designs and then report on them (successes and failures) to the rest of the class. This was my mistake; the students quickly learned (from each other) that many of the approaches were completely off base, and then felt that implementing the bad design was a waste of time, which it was. Just as the students learned from their mistakes, I was learning from mine.

In a more recent version, the students built a wind belt. This was an energy-harvesting device that utilized the aerodynamic flutter that occurs when wind blows over a belt, a phenomenon made famous by the Tacoma Narrows bridge failure. This project combined aspects of MEAM321 Vibrations and MEAM302 Fluid Dynamics, which are taken concurrently, joined into a topic many of our students are passionate about: sustainable energy.

Students are often more engaged if they see the relevance of theory to current events. But beyond this relevance, we need to tie theory to practice. For example, we want students to know which will keep your hands warmer, gloves or mittens and why, not just how to plug in numbers for the differential equation for heat balance. Sheppard mentions about her study, “Research shows that a typical student is more successful in retaining the theory that he expects to apply or has applied.”

One problem with this project approach has been the time consumed in the lab. Typically students receive two or three week projects, with open-ended lab time, and spend the last one or two days working all night on the lab to the exclusion of all else. We like to think that extra time spent is an indication of engagement. However, when we asked students to estimate time for individual components in all of their classes, it turned out that they spent less time on labs than on classes which had only homeworks and tests. It is my conjecture that the large amount of time spent at the last minute is constrained time, making them miss other things, which in effect makes it appear much more time consuming. Better project planning should help in this and is one goal for junior year in preparation for senior design.

Today’s students are different than their counterparts 20 years ago, and we can teach them more effectively if we adapt to their style of interaction. Projects that integrate theory and practice seem to do this well. When one junior project-based class was polled with the question “True or False: I have learned more from this class than any other class at Penn,” the majority said true.  While the implication of this is debatable, it may be that the students find the concepts they’ve learned in theory classes become ingrained in the project-based class.

Mark Yim is associate professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics in SEAS,
and a recipient of the 2009 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - October 20, 2009, Volume 56, No. 08