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Silly Putty, drinking fountains help 'engage' students in engineering

by UofL Today last modified Nov 12, 2010 11:35 AM

What can mechanical engineering students learn from an old chilled water drinking fountain?

If they're in Ellen Brehob's class, they can learn about a vapor compression refrigeration cycle.

Brehob, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, is one of 12 faculty members who received $500 through the National Science Foundation ENGAGE program to help them incorporate everyday examples into their science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes. The goal is to increase student engagement and help retain engineering majors to address a looming shortfall in the profession.

The recipients attended a Sept. 30 workshop titled "Everyday Examples to Teaching Engineering, Math and Science" with Eann Patterson, a mechanical engineering professor at Michigan State University. 

The workshop, Brehob said, was "interesting and it gave me some fairly concrete ideas for my class. Patterson "was very encouraging that working on a level of common understanding is the goal to make the connection between the everyday example and the concept you are trying to teach."

Brehob hasn't had to spend any of the funding. For her first everyday example, physical plant staff found a couple of old drinking fountains and removed the refrigerant at no cost, she said.

Chemical engineering professor Gerold Willing also was a grant recipient.

He said he has always tried to include real world and historical examples into his classes to provide visual examples and overall context, but the workshop made him think when he realized that "real world or practical to me might not be to the students either due to an age or experience gap."

Willing is looking forward, he said, to using the grant money to buy materials to develop more everyday examples for his courses. One purchase could be rubber balls and Silly Putty.

"When you look at Silly Putty and compare that to a standard rubber ball, you can immediately tell there is a difference between the two objects," he said. "But, at the molecular level, these two objects are the same. They are both polymer-based materials. So, why does a rubber ball hold its shape while the Silly Putty will slowly spread across a flat surface? Trying to come up with exercises the students can do to both objects while in class that will help them answer these questions is, in my opinion, the entire point of the grant."

Faculty from both the Speed School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences attended the September workshop.  In all, 21 faculty members applied for ENGAGE funding.

Besides Brehob and Willing, recipients were:

Lihui Bai, industrial engineering; Thomas Berfield, mechanical engineering; Danielle Franco, chemistry; Tim Hardin, industrial engineering; Jeff Hieb, engineering fundamentals; James Lewis, engineering fundamentals; Christine Rich, chemistry; Sandra Sephton, psychology; Daniel Smith, mathematics; Roman Yampolskiy, computer engineering and computer science.

"We were pleased with the number of faculty members who attended Eann's workshops as well as the number who applied for the stipends," said professor Brenda Hart, a UofL ENGAGE team member, along with Marie Kendall Brown, assistant director of teaching and learning, Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning; and assistant professor David Wheatley and professor James Leach, both from the Department of Engineering Fundamentals.

The UofL ENGAGE program will continue to provide workshops and webinars for faculty who are interested in the ENGAGE focus areas.

One webinar, part one of "Improving Faculty/Student Interaction," is scheduled for Nov. 18, 3 p.m.-4 p.m. Interested faculty can contact Susan Metz, PI, ENGAGE, at Susan.Metz@stevens.edu for more information.

UofL received $12,000 from NSF for a grant a grant period that started in September and will continue through February 2012. The university is one of 10 colleges participating in the first year of the ENGAGE program.

 

 

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