275760 Investigating Cooperative Learning Grouping Strategies in an Introductory Engineering Course

Wednesday, October 31, 2012: 9:57 AM
329 (Convention Center )
Edna Margarita Prieto and Elizabeth J. Adolph, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN

ES140 is a required freshman course designed to teach students about engineering analysis and design and to expose them to problem solving in discipline-specific contexts.  Engineering freshmen choose 3 modules to take during the semester to learn about 3 different engineering fields. Previous instructors of the ES140 chemical engineering module have noted that 25-50% of students, particularly non-majors, are not interested in the module and are not engaged during class.  The aim of this teaching as research project was to apply cooperative learning to improve the academic achievement and interest level of students in the ES140 chemical engineering module, particularly of those who are non-majors. Cooperative learning involves the use of small groups of students working together to learn the material.  This method has been shown to improve academic achievement, higher-order thinking skills, communication, and social skills of students compared to individualistic and competitive learning styles (Totten, et al., 1991). In this Teaching As Research project, we hypothesized that by having Chemical Engineering students (majors) and non-Chemical Engineering students (non-majors) collaborating in teams, the academic achievement and interest level of the students would increase due to the exposure of the non-major students to the views and perspectives of the major students. We tested three different grouping strategies: (a) Self-selected working teams, (b) Homogeneous working teams (students were grouped by majors), and (c) Heterogeneous working teams (majors and non-majors were grouped together). 7 out of the 10 groups in the self-selected module ended up being homogeneous groups.

The module comprised 5 classroom sessions of 50 minutes each. The main topic of the module was Biomaterials, and the topics covered offered an introduction to tissue engineering, drug release mechanisms, and mechanical properties. Each session consisted of a combination of lectures and hands-on group activities. These activities included the preparation of a polyurethane scaffold, the observation of the release of a dye from different biomaterials, fitting release profiles in Matlab, and a jigsaw activity in which students became “experts” in two mechanical properties and taught their group members about them. Academic achievement and interest level were measured with a quiz and a survey given both at the beginning and at the end of each module. Although there was a significant increase in students’ knowledge of the material after taking the module, there were no significant differences in academic achievement or interest level between the grouping strategies. In general, the students liked the activities more than the lectures. It is possible that the short time that we had with the students was not enough to generate changes in interest level by working in teams. We would like to repeat the experiment in the future by focusing on developing group activities in which students need to rely more on each other to achieve learning. As instructors, we were able to develop teaching skills related to course design, creating assessments, and lecturing. We also identified opportunities for further improvement that we look forward to implementing in the future.

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