INNOVATIONS IN UNDERGRADUATE ENGINEERING MECHANICS EDUCATION: USE OF TEAM-BASED RESEARCH-LED PROJECT METHODS FOR LARGE STUDENT COHORTS
As a cornerstone subject for all undergraduate engineering degree programmes, mechanics is best taught from fundamental principles and by reinforcing students' learning through active learning strategies. This approach provides students with a solid understanding of basic concepts before they subsequently study more advanced topics such as applied dynamics, mechanics of solids & structures, and mechanics of fluids. As coordinator of a compulsory module, Mechanics for Engineers, I am responsible for teaching 280 First Year students at Ireland’s largest university about topics including forces, Newton’s laws of motion, statics in two and three dimensions, equilibrium, friction, trusses and cables, distributed forces, centres of mass and centroids, motion, and kinematics of a particle and of a rigid body.
Traditional teaching of this subject relies solely on formal lectures and tutorials, without any laboratory sessions or student assignments, which are resource intensive. Three years ago, I became responsible for this module and rationalised the subject material with regard to what is taught in subsequent 2nd year modules. I developed three entirely integrated laboratory sessions in which groups of students are required to complete a variety of analytical and enquiry-led exercises in numerical, graphical and written form. Most recently, I undertook a major initiative to provide team-based assignments to the entire 280 students in which groups of 3-5 students were set a design challenge directly related to one specific topic from the course material (trusses & distributed forces). These changes have proven popular with students and have led to improved learning outcomes and student performance. This oral presentation will describe these innovative developments in which Irish students’ have opportunities for active research-led learning in this manner.
My teaching philosophy is research-led: I strive to expose students to current research in my laboratory by having interactions between my research and teaching activities. This variously involves illustrative demonstrations of fundamental concepts using my current research (e.g., mechanics of falls, impact biomechanics, energy absorption, fracture of composites), student internships based in my laboratory, and undergraduate research projects. This pedagogic approach reinforces students’ understanding of concepts in engineering science and develops their ability to visualise real-world problems in terms of underlying fundamentals. It subsequently empowers them to analyse quantitatively and obtain solutions to physical problems. This approach enhances the quality of my teaching to the mutual benefit of both my undergraduate and postgraduate students. This has been shown to significantly enhance the learning experience for very large numbers of First Year undergraduate university engineering students who study Engineering Mechanics. It also provides postgraduate Teaching Assistants with valuable opportunities to acquire a rich teaching experience based on research-led methods.
References: Gilchrist, International Journal of Engineering Education, 15(2), pp.151-159 (1999).