by Haefa Mansour, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020
Throughout my own experiences as a student, I’ve always been troubled by the seemingly gaping chasm between the problems taught in engineering classes and the real-world challenges they are supposed to emulate. Typical assessments of students’ understanding involve straightforward, “cookie-cutter” problems with all the parameters necessary to arrive at a solution, more or less. Instructors gravitate towards constructing problems that are conducive to efficient grading, often limiting problem scopes and shying away from realistic problems to minimize the number and complexity of possible solutions. These problems leave students wildly unprepared for the messy real world where critical information is not readily available and extraneous information often muddies the situation.
As a GSI for a core chemical engineering course, I recognized the pragmatism of the traditional approach but also identified an untapped opportunity to revolutionize the approach in discussion sections. Our discussions were typically centered around textbook problems and involved first writing out the problem statement on the board and listing all the given parameters required to arrive at a solution. I tested my new approach in one section by presenting a stripped-down version of the problem, having removed all the critical parameters. The students were surprised and confused at first; the classroom fell silent and they looked at me expectantly, awaiting further details. I then asked them, “Suppose you are a summer process engineering intern at a manufacturing facility, and your boss walked into your office with this open-ended question…how would you approach this? What additional information do you think you would need?” One brave student ventured to offer a starting point, and as a class we began to develop a framework for solving the problem, without any real numerical values at first. Once we had outlined the general strategy, I provided the required information piece-by-piece, as the students asked for it, and we solved the problem on the board together. I also provided some superfluous information to teach the students to sift through all available data and avoid distracting extraneous information. This approach gave students the foresight and the confidence to tackle complex problems and reinforced their understanding of the underlying concepts and the connections between them.
I refined my approach as the semester went on by incorporating advice about where to find required information and how to recognize when problems are under- or over-specified. Students appeared to recognize the value of the material as the connections between in-class and real-world problems became more apparent. I observed significant increases in class engagement, and more students began to raise their hands and contribute to class discussions, which added further value to these discussions. I also detected a marked increase in the depth of the questions asked, as students began to move beyond the problem frameworks entirely and ask about approaching creative variations of the problems.
In addition to observing the effect of my new approach on class engagement, I assessed the method’s effectiveness by administering an anonymous mid-semester evaluation that requested both qualitative feedback and quantitative ratings. The comments were overwhelmingly positive, and 80 percent of students gave a rating of 5 (out of 5) with the remaining 20 percent giving a rating of 4. The attendance in my discussion sections also spoke to the added value of my new teaching approach. One of my sections grew to be so large that it even surpassed the classroom capacity, requiring some students to stand in the back. I was thrilled to see the enormous impact that this new strategy had on my students, and I believe that significant benefits can be derived from extending this strategy to other STEM disciplines where problem-solving skills are an integral part of the curriculum.