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Transforming 21st-Century Engineering Education

In traditional classrooms, students observe a lecture and learn about new concepts and principles. They are then responsible for applying that knowledge while completing homework and other assignments, outside of the classroom. These traditional classrooms seldom provide students with the opportunity to receive hands-on guidance from faculty while exploring class material. The College of Engineering is now using an innovative alternative to the traditional lecture format for several classes. This new format, which went into use during the past spring semester, is known as an active classroom.

Active classrooms reverse the lecture and homework elements of the class. Faculty use a variety of tools to disseminate information outside of the classroom, including PowerPoint presentations, videos and other resources. Students utilize those tools to learn information they would typically receive in class, with the flexibility to work at their own pace and location. In the active classroom, students use class time to explore material in depth, and engage in hands-on learning by applying the knowledge they obtained on their own time. Each has an electronic device (laptop, tablet or smartphone), and individual students or groups often “cast” their project results and findings to the classroom screen, allowing their peers to discuss their project and offer feedback. Each student is able to participate in or lead a discussion without leaving his or her desk.

“The active learning initiative increased the connectivity and communication between faculty and students, and within the students’ multidisciplinary teams,” says Matthew Trussoni, an assistant professor in practice in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering who used the active classroom. “It engaged and motivated students more than previously used teaching techniques.”

Our faculty are eager to explore all kinds of new learning methods. “This active classroom approach to learning is just one way that the College of Engineering is redefining engineering education – a key initiative in our Strategic Plan,” says Dean Jean-Pierre Bardet. “This hands-on approach takes student learning well beyond memorizing, understanding and applying. They are now actively learning by becoming critical thinkers through analyzing, evaluating and creating new knowledge, which is a key component of the College’s mission.”

Preparing for and using the active classroom has itself been a cross-disciplinary activity. Staff and faculty collaborated with the College’s IT department, the University’s Academic Technologies, UMIT and facilities. Preparation and planning for the active classroom was led in part by Derin Ural, associate dean for student affairs at the College, who is experienced in working with flipped classrooms. Ural was a provost at the Istanbul Technical University, and department chair at MEF University in Turkey – the first and only university in the world to implement flipped learning for all of its programs. “At MEF University, we saw that, as students were able to follow the coursework on their own pace, their success rates and grades increased,” Ural said. “Engineering requires a high level of project-based learning, and flipped learning is the best way to achieve that. Students are highly engaged during class hours, and as they work in teams and present their work, their communication skills are enhanced. I am delighted to be at UM, to take part in this important and innovative initiative. It is off to a great start.”

In preparation for using the active classroom, faculty participated in a variety of training activities – some taught with the active classroom approach, and utilized Blackboard technologies. They also have prepared new curriculum plans that incorporate this learning approach. “Several of the College’s faculty members have worked hard to introduce active classrooms into the curriculum – studying best practices and working with IT to prepare the required technology and planning coursework,” Bardet says.

Members of the University’s Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement (LIFE) group, which is part of the Academic Technologies group in the IT department, led two workshops on active classrooms. “Through the guidance of Dr. Ural, we prepared and delivered ‘Flipped Learning’ workshops aimed at faculty who would like to try ‘flipping’ part of a course or who would like to expand upon the work they’ve already started,” explains Nathalie Molina, one of the two senior instructional designers from LIFE who led the workshops. “The workshop offered faculty a practical opportunity to identify tools, resources and teaching strategies to begin adopting a flipped learning approach.” Her colleague, Gemma Henderson, shared the University’s excitement about the active classroom experience. “We are delighted to support College of Engineering faculty in the implementation of its active classroom,” Henderson said. “LIFE is excited to continue this partnership with the College of Engineering, and promote active learning activities.”

The IT departments, meanwhile, were crucial to bringing this new way of teaching to life. “It is exciting to see a group effort to reimagine education and learning at the University of Miami,” says William Vilberg, assistant director of Learning Platforms in University Information Technology. “Everyone makes changes in their classes, but this group of faculty were doing it together. That added to the excitement and lowered the risk.”

The first courses to take advantage of the active classroom were Electrical Circuit Theory (ECE 201); Engineering Materials Science (MAE 301); Biomedical Engineering Senior Project (BME 401); Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Senior Design (CAE 404); Biomedical Instrumentation (BME 480); Statistical Quality Control and Quality Management (IEN 512); and Statistical Quality Control and Quality Management (IEN 570).

Faculty used the active classroom in various ways. In the Senior Design Course, for instance, three faculty members taught students across the engineering disciplines. “The technology available in the class allowed us to split the class into discipline groups, and thus tailor teaching specific to our discipline area,” says Helena Solo-Gabriele, the College’s associate dean for research and a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. At the same time, she notes, the classroom’s structure made it easy to incorporate student work across disciplines. “For example, we were able to facilitate integration of water treatment process design with plumbing, which are traditionally designed by separate engineers,” she says.

Several of the courses were formatted as student-led group discussions during every class. “Each student had to analyze the material we were working on,” says Zachary Bohl, who was a senior studying industrial engineering. “These student-led discussions, with curation from the professor … may have encouraged students to spend more time thinking critically about the material.” In some classes, students often prepared short presentations on each topic. “Writing the presentations was more work, but it was great for absorbing the material,” says Felipe Nunez, an industrial engineering student. “Discussions were more engaging and interactive.”

In other classes, students engaged in activities that required them to apply what they’d just discussed. “It allowed us to work on charts, data and analysis that was explained to us a couple of minutes prior,” says industrial engineering student Daniela Martinez. “This, in turn, made homework and exams easier, as we were able to connect it back to what was done in class.” Santiago Galindez Barreiro adds that, “students get lost when concepts are not used as they are being learned. This system, however, ensures that we listen and apply. Personally, it helped me focus better in class and understand better what was taught.”

The active classroom setup also led to frequent group work. “The layout of the room facilitated the interaction between other students and the exchange of knowledge,” says industrial engineering student Victor Hugo Câmara da Silva. “The ability to stream our computer screens to the TV allowed everyone … to help each other when there was a question.”

At the same time, the setup also made it easier for each student to have one-on-one contact with the instructor during class. “This environment allowed our professor to give us individualized feedback,” says biomedical engineering student Isa Mulvihill. “That was especially helpful when learning how to use MATLAB for instrumentation applications.”

Overall, says industrial engineering student Talal Qadoumi, “The classroom’s open environment was a breath of fresh air. … Interactive televisions made presentations more visually appealing, as well as exciting. The table and chair setup created an environment conducive to student collaboration, and incentivized open debate.”

This new way of learning and teaching certainly required time and effort for both faculty and students to adapt. Of course, as Allan Gyorke, UM’s assistant provost for educational innovation, notes, engineers are no strangers to trying new things. “I am impressed that the College of Engineering is taking these steps forward,” he says. “It goes to show how innovative engineers can be when they set their minds to some complex problems.”

The committee on active learning for the CoE includes:

  • Hammam Alsafrjalani, assistant professor in practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Ana Ayala, director of finance and administration in the College of Engineering
  • Ines Basalo, assistant professor in practice in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • Jorge Bohorquez, associate professor in practice in the Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Gemma Henderson, senior instructional designer in the Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement (LIFE) with Academic Technologies in UMIT
  • Francisco Martinez Duarte, building facility coordinator in the College of Engineering
  • Nina DeCario Miville, assistant professor in practice in the Department of Industrial Engineering
  • Nathalie Molina, senior instructional designer in the Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement (LIFE) with Academic Technologies in UMIT
  • Ram Narasimhan, assistant professor in practice in the Department of Industrial Engineering
  • Rick Ramos, help desk supervisor in UMIT
  • Michael Scordilis, associate professor in practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Troy Thompson, director of building facilities with the College of Engineering
  • Matthew Trussoni, assistant professor in practice in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering
  • Derin Ural, associate dean for student affairs, professor in practice in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering and working group chair
  • William Vilberg, assistant director of Learning Platforms in University Information Technology