This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page

Bennett boosts learning by making things real
March 23, 1998

Wearing safety goggles and work apparel, students stand at tables pounding red sand with maple mallets.

While a propane furnace roars nearby, small teams of students pound, scoop, sprinkle and smooth sand mixtures until the texture is right. In the engineering machine shop, future engineers are making sand castings for an aluminum part.

Today's activity is part of a four-week project in an introductory engineering course taught and designed by John Bennett, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Team work and hands-on experiences are part of his philosophy of teaching.

"Make the material real," says Bennett. "Identify why it's important and where it's used. Provide information that will allow students to use the material, and give them practice using it. Have a lot of hands-on activities associated with the material and involve team efforts as much as possible."

Until 1994, when the course was revised, most sections were taught in a traditional manner, with few hands-on activities. Now the course is project-based.

The students' previous project, designing an optimum coffee-maker, helped them learn how coffeemakers work and reinforced certain concepts. "We introduced them to heat transfer, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics," Bennett says. "A coffeemaker integrates all of those engineering sciences."

Three team projects are required in the course, in addition to lectures and homework. Each team of three or four prepares a team performance agreement - a contract among the group members. An undergraduate teaching assistant (a student who has already taken the course) is assigned to each group. The assistant, who meets with his or her team for two hours a week outside the regular class, acts as a facilitator or mentor.

Bennett, who is director of the First Year Experience, says that students benefit from having undergraduate teaching assistants work with their groups.

"They get to hear another perspective on topics in which they need help, and students are sensitive to each other's needs," he says. The teaching assistants benefit, too. "They gain valuable experience in interacting in groups. It's a well known fact that you really learn something when you present it to other people," Bennett says.

It's time to pour the molten aluminum into the molds. Tony Smith, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, volunteers to help the lab manager, Fred Massicotte, with the job. Smith's classmates cheer him on as he slips into a flame-resistant silvery suit, heavy gloves and a face protector. Smith doesn't flinch as he raises his end of the iron harness to lift the silicon pot of 1400o F melted metal from the furnace.

Bennett and Harold Brody, a professor of metallurgy and former dean of engineering, who developed the details of the casting project, seem pleased with the morning's work.

Group problem-solving is important for students because most engineering assignments in the world today are collaborative efforts involving engineers and others, Bennett says. "The group set-up not only prepares them for the real world, it also fosters learning, and encourages critical thinking," he adds.

When working in teams, one student may get information from the Web, another do research at the library, and another contact a company about a product. "When they get together they share information and have a lot to offer. It's reinforcing and helps them buy into the material," he says.

Although some educators believe the team approach sacrifices material for process, Bennett disagrees. "We don't leave anything out. We just don't do everything in the classroom."

Scott Harrison, an undergraduate teaching assistant majoring in mechanical engineering, says the team projects are exciting for students. "They get more out of it and get to see real life applications," he says.

When Bennett introduced the four-week project earlier in the week, he related casting to the real world.

"Somewhere in your career you will be doing a project that will include some casting of parts," Bennett says. "If it happens to be in the gas turbine industry, it will be casting of alloys of titanium and steel. They will have to be very precise," he explains. He also related the material to a previous project.

Then he asked the students to break into their groups to review their new project description. "Talking is encouraged," he says. Even in large classes, Bennett asks students to interact with people around them. "Brainstorming helps them come up with answers."

Justin Pribanic, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, says team projects help in the learning process. "You get group input and different ideas and opinions."

Two projects this year have involved coffee-makers. Last semester students produced a consumer report that evaluated six different kinds of Black and Decker coffee pots, looking at features such as ease of use and consumer appeal. In order to analyze the data, they had to write a computer program in Fortran, which they learned mostly on their own. This semester each team designed a coffee maker - touching on areas from manufacturing and assembly procedures to uniqueness, cost, safety, and ease of use.

Bennett, who also teaches a learning skills course as part of the First Year Experience, has this advice for teaching any subject: "Make the course real. If you get students to apply the material, it's unbelievable how much better they'll remember it. I can't imagine a course where you couldn't do that.

Sherry Fisher