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Swanson School professors capture award to improve engineering instruction and learning

Renee Clark and Sam Dickerson receive ACIE’s Innovation in Education award to promote active learning across engineering classrooms

PITTSBURGH (June 18, 2018) … When imagining a college classroom, one might imagine a professor standing at a podium and lecturing a room full of students taking notes. A pair of professors from the University of Pittsburgh want to reimagine this simplistic approach with a more interactive experience. Renee Clark, research assistant professor of industrial engineering, and Sam Dickerson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, hope to impact education at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering through widespread propagation of active learning.

In an effort to strengthen the role of teaching at Pitt, the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence (ACIE) created the Innovation in Education Awards Program to support faculty proposals which aim to reinvent traditional classroom instruction. Clark and Dickerson received one of eight awards this year for their project.

“With active learning, we ask students to do something in the classroom beyond just listening to a lecture and taking notes,” explained Clark. “Students should be engaged and interacting with class content. Whether through brainstorming solutions to a problem, solving calculations in a group, or writing a one-minute reflection at the end of class, the goal is to have professors take a step back from lecturing and allow students to participate in the lesson. This promotes critical thinking and improves knowledge retention”

Clark began working with Dickerson in July 2016 after they attended a Swanson School active learning workshop. They decided that they wanted to take their experience a step further and coach other instructors in how they can implement what they learned from this workshop in their classrooms.

Clark and Dickerson’s project will begin this summer with a cohort of nine professors. This pilot group will work to implement simple active learning activities for their courses in two engineering departments (IE and ECE). Clark said, “We want to create a supportive learning community where we can exchange ideas and plans for the use of active learning.” Clark and Dickerson will coach each of the professors throughout the school year by observing their classrooms and giving feedback. At the end of the year, they will reunite the professors for a focus group to further improve their model for future participants.

While there are many useful advanced active learning techniques, Clark and Dickerson plan to start simple. Dickerson’s implementation of the “think, pair, share” activity in his classroom demonstrates the success of this approach. He explains, “Rather than starting a class with an example and running through it, you give the students a problem, allow them to individually think about it, then ask them to come up with a solution as a group.” He discovered that using this activity changed the dynamic of his classroom. He said, “It became completely normal for students to speak up when they didn’t understand a concept or offer help to peers who were struggling with certain topics.”

The ease of execution is a selling point for instructors who may debate changing their classroom structure. “Many professors do not have the time for more-involved active learning so we are sharing simple activities that require little preparation,” Clark said. “Instructors can introduce these methods on the fly or in response to a lack of classroom interaction. It is easy to stop a lecture and allow students to think about what they’re learning.”

Dickerson has found that using these activities has been beneficial to more than just the students. He said, “Using active learning has helped me reflect on the way I teach; what I thought were easy concepts, were not. This strategy has allowed me to reevaluate my lessons and improve student comprehension.”

Clark and Dickerson have had positive feedback on their efforts and found that students quickly become comfortable in this kind of environment. Based on data collected over the past two years, simple active learning has also positively impacted exam scores. This response encouraged them to apply to the Innovation in Education program and adapt their experience into a school-wide effort. Dickerson said, “Although these types of teaching techniques work well, the number of adopters is low. We want to change that.”

The overall goal of this project is to have other Swanson School professors adapt this successful model to their classrooms. They hope to enhance student engagement, increase information retention, and improve students’ ability to use gained knowledge.

“We want to make classrooms more learner-centered. In a teacher-centered environment, the focus is on content delivery. With a learner-centered classroom, we switch the spotlight to the student,” said Clark. “With simple active learning, class may still be lecture based, but you add some elements to make the students more active and turn the focus on them.”


Contact: Leah Russell