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Teaching Excellence

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New institute making Cornell Engineering education even better.

Susan Daniel, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, overwrites a presentation slide during lecture using a smart tablet. She piloted the device for the Teaching Excellence Institute. 

Susan Daniel, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, piloted a smart tablet for the Teaching Excellence Institute.

In days gone by, large classes at Cornell, such as intro and organic chemistry, were a place to fade into the crowd—where students either furiously scribbled notes as the professor scrawled on the distant blackboard, or dazed off into day (or real) dreams.

Today, there’s a decidedly different feel in courses such as Analysis of Mechanical and Aerospace Structures (MAE 3250), a large lecture course for junior mechanical engineering students.

Professor Yingxin Gao, in a tailored skirt and blazer and short-cropped hair, explains how to calculate the stress concentration of a plate with a circular hole in its center. As she lectures, a bright projector screen shows computer-generated examples and illustrations of the concept. Gao frequently walks to an adjacent blackboard to write out equations. As she writes, she asks the students questions about the problem—her voice crisply amplified by the microphone clipped to her blazer. The students call out answers, and she plugs in the correct ones accordingly. Periodically, she stops to ask them to solve an equation in their notebooks, and discuss it.

Finally, Gao pauses to put up a PowerPoint screen with a multiple choice question on it. “Which of the following statements about sigma is correct?” she asks. Options A through D are available. Students reach into their bags for small white devices called iClickers that resemble TV remotes. Quickly, their answers filter in—a small meter at the top of the screen instantly shows how many students have chosen each option as they press the corresponding buttons on their iClickers. Once choices are in, Gao brings up a bar graph showing what percenetage of the class picked each answer—86 percent picked A, which turns out to be correct. Not one student is asleep—not even in the back.

This class’s lively and engaged atmosphere is in large part thanks to the Teaching Excellence Institute. The College of Engineering created the institute in 2008 to improve the quality of teaching and learning within the college. Director Kathryn Dimiduk, ’79, formerly a senior lecturer in physics at the University of New Mexico, works closely with faculty. “We’re looking to get the maximum amount of impact with our efforts,” she says, noting that one of the major goals of the institute is to “reduce the frustration of the faculty, and reduce the frustration of the students.”

Dimiduk finds out exactly what faculty want to help them teach better— the results range from simple to state-of-the-art solutions. Improving the audio-visual quality of the rooms was a basic, but huge, step towards improving the experience for students and professors. Renovations, which started last summer and continued over winter break, vary by room. Some include wide-screen projectors with split-image capability, a document camera to display text or demos, and new, larger screens that display the full image that appears on the professor’s computer. Previously, rooms such as Olin 255, had screens in which the image took up only a small portion of the screen, making it nearly impossible to read from the back row. Classrooms have also received dual microphones to enable more than one speaker without the awkward back-and-forth shuffle of the mic.

Daniel overwrites a presentation slide during lecture using the smart tablet.  
Daniel overwrites a presentation slide during lecture using the smart tablet.

Once the improvements to more than a dozen rooms are completed this summer, they will impact approximately 80 courses, benefitting thousands of students. Dimiduk doesn’t want to stop there—she will upgrade more rooms if more funding comes through.

The institute awards McCormick Teaching Innovation and Course Improvement Grants that faculty can use to purchase new tools like the iClickers and smart tablets, which allow them to make notes on a slide or actively work out an equation with the students. The institute works with faculty as needed to develop innovative teaching strategies that incorporate these technologies.

Tobias Hanrath, assistant professor of chemical and bioengineering, was wary at first of the new technology. “To be honest, I was skeptical about some aspects of this technology in the beginning because I am not a fan of multiple choice questions,” he wrote in an e-mail to Dimiduk. “But the combination of concept-tests to test the students’ fundamental understanding of the underlying thermodynamics and the clicker system has proven to be a very effective improvement to the course.”  Now, Hanrath’s students, who have been hugely in favor of the technology, use the clickers routinely in recitation session and in lecture.

Chris Schaffer, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is an advocate for the technology. As a physics graduate student at Harvard University, he studied with Eric Mazur, who has studied the way science and technology is taught. The Mazur group pioneered and studied the Peer Instruction method, which encourages student participation and interaction in large lecture classes. According to Mazur’s Web site, “[Peer Instruction]...involves students in their own learning during lecture and focuses their attention on underlying concepts. Lectures are interspersed with conceptual questions...designed to expose common difficulties in understanding the material. The students are given one to two minutes to think about the question and formulate their own answers; they then spend two to three minutes discussing their answers in groups of three to four, attempting to reach consensus on the correct answer. This process forces the students to think through the arguments being developed, and enables them (as well as the instructor) to assess their understanding of the concepts even before they leave the classroom.”

This method can be used in conjunction with iClickers, so that students can discuss, and then vote on the answers they arrived at after working with their peers. Mazur introduced the iClicker method to Schaffer, who then continued to use it when he came to Cornell in 2006, before it had been widely adopted. Schaffer explains that the value of the iClicker method goes beyond a simple test to see if students understand a concept. “If a teacher designs a question that all the students get correct, they’re just patting themselves on the back saying, ‘Wow I did a good job teaching them.’”  Instead, he says, teachers should provide students with questions that challenge their own conceptual misunderstandings.

The value of the iClicker method goes beyond a simple test to see if students understand a concept. 

The value of the iClicker method goes beyond a simple test to see if students understand a concept.

The trick, Schaffer says, is in designing the questions correctly, which is not always easy. Crafting the ‘right’ wrong answers that get at common misjudgments is also important for getting students to think more deeply about a topic. “These questions can be extremely effective teaching tools,” says Schaffer.

To better facilitate the use of iClicker questions, Dimiduk is creating a database for faculty to upload and access the multiple-choice questions for various courses and subjects. Thus, faculty that are new to the format and may not have the time to compose new questions can access the database and use ones that have already been tested in the classroom. They can also use questions from the database as models as they design questions for their own courses.

The institute was founded with a partial endowment and continuing support from Michael Goguen ’86 EE, a member of the Engineering College Council.  James ’69 OR, M.Eng. ’70 and Marsha McCormick ’70, have also supported the institute. John Swanson ’61 ME, M.S. ’63 is the lead donor for the classroom renovation project (other major donors include Bob ’63 AP, M.S. ’64, and Anne ’64 Shaw).

Swanson recently visited the college to view the latest improvements and talk about why he chooses to donate to efforts like this one.  He says he focuses on improving engineering education because “there is a desperate need to fill the gap” of vacant engineering positions opening up. “Education is important in my life. I’m looking for places to make a positive effect in education,” Swanson adds. His beliefs in education technique align nicely with that of the institute. “The best way to learn something is to teach it,” he says.

Teaching excellence has always been important to the College of Engineering. If the Teaching Excellence Institute’s goals are achieved, teaching will be even better in updated classrooms that futher support innovative, engaging teaching. “It can really change the feel of a class,” says Dimiduk, “and I have been impressed with faculty willingness to try new technology and approaches and how much they care about teaching.”