Virginia Ferguson

Mechanical Engineering

Course Context:
My course is a 4000/5000 level course in “Biomechanics” : the mechanical behavior of biological materials. I have the challenge of teaching to mixed undergraduates (~20-30 students) and graduates (~10-15 1st year students) each spring semester.  I have struggled with this class over many years where I find that if I teach material that is satisfying to undergraduate students, then the graduate students find the class interesting but unchallenging.  If I teach material that is more of a graduate level (and that is more relevant to the field of study), then the undergraduate students have a hard time keeping up and the graduate students fall into one of two camps: 1) bored as they have already learned very similar material in a core graduate course (Solid Mechanics) or 2) challenged but unsatisfied as they are learning mostly Solid Mechanics and not getting enough bio content. 

This spring, I tried to overcome some of these issues by increasing student engagement in my class through interactive exercises.  

What did you do?
Target of improvement/evidence; What did you do?

I attempted to utilize several new learning tools this spring:

- introduce threshold concepts
- hold graded discussion topics using a message board on CU Learn
- required undergraduate students research a historical or noteworthy figure in biomechanics and then hold a 10 minute presentation and submit an "up to" 5 page paper on the accomplishments / contributions of this individual.  These were held over a period of ~2 months during the semester before and after spring break.
- required graduate students to research one biomechanics topic (not covered in class) in depth and give a 25 minute lecture on this topic.  They also had to develop five homework or exam questions + solutions related to their topic.

What happened?
What difference did it make? How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help you make adjustments mid-course?
These four main areas had varying degrees of success (or lack thereof).  I will detail these as follows:

- threshold topics:  Good.  Students liked them. I need to better identify what they are and how to deal with topics that I realize, while teaching, really are threshold concepts (meaning that I realize that a concept is critical to understanding and that I have taken it for granted that it would be easy for students to assimilate.  However, while teaching, I realize that the concept is of a threshold nature and so then I need to adjust my lesson plans, etc.)
- discussion board on CU Learn:  Had potential, very time consuming.  I have to admit that I only tried it once.  During week 1, I assigned a discussion topic.  To my surprise, the students embraced the discussion board - they liked it and reported that they were excited about having a forum to discuss the class.  However, I quickly became overwhelmed with non-teaching related demands and stopped assigning these topics as there was no way for me to spend enough time moderating or even observing the discussion.  I want to use these in the future but have to figure out how to allocate my own time to do so out of class.
 - undergraduate presentations and papers:  I have to say that I was optimistic, and some of these were pretty good.  But despite my giving specific guidance on what to include in the presentations and the papers, I found them to be weak and uninteresting.  I used almost 200 minutes of class time on these presentations this semester and found that the regular use of this class time for these talks (~10-20 minutes per class for several weeks in a row) was disruptive and limited my ability to adequately cover critical lecture topics.  By the time I recognized the problem, I could not change the scheduling and just did my best to cover important material in the lectures.  Also, peer-evaluations of these presentations indicated that students were frustrated that they all sounded "the same", that they did not go into much depth, and that they did not feel that these presentations were a good use of class time.  In the future, I do not plan to hold such presentations (even when my class is small), but am considering a way to involve the undergraduates in research.  See below for more details.
- graduate student presentations and homework/exam questions:  Overall, the graduate students did a great job at presenting complicated material in fairly short chunks of time (25 minutes for each grad student).  They each chose a topic in an area of interest to them and presented individually on their topic.  The undergraduates and fellow graduate students reported (in peer grading evaluations) that they enjoyed these presentations and found them educational.  The graduate students also competed, in a sense, to improve presentations.  I should note that these grad presentations were all given in the last two weeks of the semester, and so did not serve the purpose of giving the undergraduates examples of good quality presentations.

What did you learn? What is next?
What worked? What did you learn?
This class has really been a challenge for me to teach effectively.  I have considered breaking it up into two separate classes (one 4000 level and one 5000 level) to be taught in alternating years, where they would have different prerequisites (to partly avoid teaching the contents of our Solid Mechanics class within this Biomechanics class). I am not sure if this is the right answer and am working with my bioengineering peers within Mechanical Engineering on larger issues concerning our curriculum.  That being said, I suspect that I may be pushed into maintaining this 4000/5000 level structure (and regularly teach another 4000/5000 level course) and so want to consider a productive way of taking advantage of my populations of mixed undergrad/grad students.

My current objective is to set up a new system within my co-listed (4/5000) classes where I form groups of one graduate and multiple undergraduates to group deeper into specific subject areas.  In Biomechanics, for example, this will enable the graduate students to mentor a group of undergraduates to research a topic (in the scientific literature rather than just using Google or Wikipedia!) and then the group will collectively plan and assemble a lecture (and homework / exam problems).  The graduate student will then teach the lecture (for a full lecture period) to the entire class.  These lecture topics will be selected in part by me (the instructor) and also by the students (to reflect their interests).  

The flow will be as follows: I will lecture on core material underlying each threshold concept including theory and major background.  I will include examples to spark interest in the subject area.  The graduate - undergraduate student teams will explore one application of this subject area in depth.  

The late timing of the graduate presentations in this spring semester showed me how I can use these graduate student presentations to better augment the material that I am teaching.  Also, the students tend to be very creative in the examples that they choose to bring to the class and so will help to liven up the material - especially when I lack time to update my examples that I use in my slides.  

Future strategies that I will try include:

• As I did this spring semester, divide the class up into sections around each key threshold concept. Then, I will present threshold concepts to the class during lecture and homeworks. Each threshold concept will be further reinforced through either myself or a graduate student providing additional lecture material (based mostly on interactive examples) and hands-on demonstrations in class. Each graduate student will be required to present once throughout the course of the semester during the semester (rather than in the last 1-2 weeks). I will fill in gaps should there not be a match between the number of threshold concepts and the number of graduate students.

• This will serve two purposes: 1) to ensure that each graduate student has a solid grasp of each threshold concept through direct interaction with me. 2) To provide them and the rest of the class with a richer learning experience. The graduate students tend to be very creative in coming up with hands-on demonstrations and they make the learning experience more interesting than simply listening to me lecture for 15 weeks!

• Student groups (1 grad student, multiple undergraduates) will be formed where a graduate student will be required to mentor the undergraduates to ensure that they have a thorough understanding of the threshold concepts. I may have the undergraduates contribute to the graduate student’s hands-on demo and/or presentation (TBD).
• I would like to have my graduate students work with me and each other to strategize on how to build on and overcome the threshold concepts. I would also like to encourage them to mentor the undergraduates, teach them how to work with / lead teams, how to communicate both theory and applications, etc.

Sharing with colleagues?

Starting in January 2010, we started communicating the goals of this FTEP institute with our department though a short presentation in our January Department meeting. This was well received by our Chair and the department faculty. As a result, myself and the other Mechanical Engineering participants in this FTEP institute have hired a student to work on a blog site that contains teaching materials and other useful reference materials, sample minute papers, and other related materials to be linked to by our faculty from our department website. We seek to establish a legacy for the department of a single location to find teaching and administrative resources (such as the departmental policy on academic dishonesty or the policy on course grade assignments).

University of Colorado at Boulder CU Home CU Search CU A to Z Campus Map