By Enze Chen, Materials Science and Engineering
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023
A hallmark feature of the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) curriculum is the hands-on laboratory courses where students perform experiments using advanced scientific instruments. There have been numerous content enhancements over the years, but the assessment at the end of each lab in all MSE lab courses has always been a traditional lab report. While scientific writing is important, the repetitive structure and assessment of reports across lab courses lowers student learning gains and engagement, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The outsize emphasis on writing also gives students less practice with other forms of science communication that may benefit their professional development. Thus, there is an opportunity to enhance assessment practices and introduce students to a wide spectrum of communication methods used by expert materials scientists.
In MSE 104L: Materials Characterization Laboratory, I led an effort, with the support of the teaching team and a Course Improvement Grant from the GSI Teaching & Resource Center, to replace the final lab report in the course with a public poster session. Poster sessions are commonplace across academia and industry, but students often do not have enough practice visually representing and communicating technical concepts to a broader audience. Since most of our students had little or no poster-making experience, I shared tips for making effective visualizations using open-source software and led a workshop on designing a throughline across different sections of their poster. I observed students’ increased engagement with the lab as they began to see the value of crafting a compelling narrative for their work, and similarly witnessed their excitement and pride in the lobby of Hearst Memorial Mining Building as students showcased their work to their classmates and peers. To further develop the students’ communication skills and target higher-order learning objectives in Bloom’s taxonomy, we also had the students evaluate each other’s posters (after a discussion of how to provide effective feedback and avoid being Reviewer #2) so that they could learn from everyone’s work. Instructors, students, and community members expressed how impressed they were by the quality of the posters and the confidence with which students articulated their projects. Our department’s laboratory staff commented that, in all their years of assisting with this lab course, this iteration generated the most creative experiments—from phase separation in Bi–Sn to correlations between fiber density and absorption in paper—which we credit to the innate curiosity in our diverse students. It should be noted that this lab was an inquiry-based “do your own experiment” lab in which the students could characterize any material of their choosing.
Following the poster sessions, we administered a short survey to collect student feedback on their learning experience with the poster presentations. Student sentiment was very positive; several students said the poster design and presentations were their favorite part of the course and that they enjoyed showcasing their creativity, communication, and design skills. A few students expressed surprise that making the poster was more fun and educational than expected, and that audience questions and discussions prompted them to think differently about their work. Everyone agreed that the poster session should remain a feature of future MSE 104L classes, and I hope that the instructional materials we created can be used by future GSIs to engage students in new ways and help them expand their range of science communication techniques.