Laboratory experiments form one of the foundational experiences for all engineering students. Well-designed laboratory experiences can make engineering concepts come to life, giving students a real-world confirmation of the theory and concepts from lecture classes. Conversely, the effectiveness of hands-on learning can be reduced if there is inadequate levels of student engagement and reflection (Holmes and Wieman, 2018; Koretsky, et al., 2011; Hofestein and Lunetta, 2004). Due to advances in portable data acquisition devices, laptop computers, and an array of affordable sensors, there is an unprecedented opportunity to bring hands-on experiments out of the centralized labs, and into lecture classrooms, and even student dorm rooms. While such mobile hands-on experiments have had substantial inroads in the fields of electrical and computer engineering education (ECE), dissemination of these ideas to other fields has been slow to materialize. This research is focused on extending hands-on learning into the disciplines of mechanical engineering (ME) and aerospace engineering (AE).
Educational experiments in ME and AE labs are primarily conducted in centralized labs with student access limited to 3-hour time periods. Making experiments more portable and affordable would allow them to be used in different settings such as classrooms and dormitories, but there are significant challenges. Many ME and AE experiments require moving parts, fluid flow under pressure, structures, thermal effects all at a scale that students can see, touch, or hear the physical phenomena being investigated. Hands-on learning in ECE, by its nature, involves much smaller platforms that are very easy to instrument to obtain data. This research builds upon our previous work in hands-on pedagogy in the ECE education and seeks to apply it to new platforms designed for ME and AE subjects.
Among the research questions that are being addressed several stand out: Which topics have the greatest potential for enhancing educational outcomes through hands-on learning? What is the impact of the experiments on student performance, on student interest and confidence in the subject matter, and on long-term retention of the knowledge? Do these experiments have a positive impact on students from underrepresented groups in terms of performance, student interest, and retention? Since hands-on education is often associated with collaboration and group work, what are the best practices for impromptu team work, especially in the context of diversity and underrepresentation in these student groups?
To address these research questions, the project has several objectives. One goal is to develop experimental platforms and supplemental materials to support the learning of basic concepts and higher-level thinking processes in ME and AE courses. Part of this effort entails designing short learning experiences that are well thought out, and involve adequate levels of engagement and reflection. We also seek to develop online instructional materials for support of on-campus students, for outreach to K-12 and other nontraditional areas, and for online versions of courses doing hands-on learning. Additionally, we are developing appropriate evaluation and assessment methods for hands-on learning.
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