It’s hard to say which sounded sweeter to Professor Paul Nissenson, the cacophony of his students’ voices as they worked together solving engineering problems or the audience’s applause when he and six other Cal Poly Pomona faculty members received the Online Learning Consortium’s Digital Innovation Award in Orlando, Florida.
A yearslong project led by Nissenson transformed one mechanical engineering course from a traditionally lecture-heavy environment to a classroom full of interaction. The production of more than 60 videos supplemented by a cleverly designed online homework platform combined to relay information to students outside of class previously taught in lectures.
“When we’re in class, I’m no longer at the board just talking,” Nissenson said. “The communication was a lot less one way. The students were kept accountable by the homework program and the videos were these great new resources.”
The experimental teaching methods produced a sharp escalation in the number of students who passed the bottleneck course that nearly one third of students typically have had to repeat in order to progress toward their degree.
In a typical section of fluid mechanics, a junior-level course for mechanical and civil engineering students, passing rates for classes taught in a lecture-heavy manner are approximately 60 to 70 percent. Nissenson taught three “flipped classes” utilizing newfound digital tools and obtained passing rates of 83, 84 and 94 percent.
“This course was easier for me, but not because the material was easy,” said junior John Kest, a mechanical engineering major. “The format of the class made it easier to learn and so much less stressful.”
Seven Cal Poly Pomona professors teamed up in 2015 in search of higher passing rates for the class. The five engineering faculty helped produce the videos while two psychology and sociology professors led a deep dive into the students’ response to the course’s alternative design.
The results landed them at the Online Learning Consortium’s award ceremony on Nov. 16, where they won the award and $10,000 that will likely be invested to further the efforts to improve the fluid mechanics course.
It took Nissenson and fellow mechanical engineering professors Angela Shih, Henry Xue, and Priscilla Zhao an entire summer in 2015 to storyboard a series of videos covering every topic in the course. Additionally, Professor John Biddle allowed cameras into his classroom for an entire quarter to film every second of his fluid mechanics lecture series.
To ensure the videos were viewed as a homework assignment, students often began class with a quiz. Most of the remaining class time was spent solving problems.
“The problems we worked on were things we might actually encounter on a real job in the future,” said junior Samantha Villagran, a mechanical engineering student. “If I was confused about anything, I could always go back and watch the videos. I’ve taken online classes before, but this was completely different than anything like that.”
Nissenson’s favorite time of class centered around team battles. Students were paired to solve problems – a design to further increase the interactive nature of the class – and the rewards ranged from extra credit to a handful of candy.
“I want that interaction,” Nissenson said. “It gets very loud in the classroom, but you like that as a teacher.”
Success evidenced by the elevated passing rate was supported by positive feedback about the course in focus groups initiated by psychology and sociology professors Juliana Fuqua and Faye Wachs. The only two non-engineering professors on the team were specifically sought out to assess the students’ response to the new approach to class. Discussions within focus groups made up of students delved into aspects virtually never associated with engineering courses, including how students felt about not just the course, but themselves as a result of the course.
The videos were combined with an adaptive learning platform called Connect developed by McGraw Hill Education, the maker of the textbook used in Fluid Mechanics. Connect provides students with an interactive online textbook that periodically tests their knowledge, as well as an online homework system that varies answers to its homework questions, preventing the use of solution manuals easily accessible via a google search.
The videos for fluid mechanics, which are housed in YouTube and accessible to the public, have generated more than 750,000 views. They are part of a growing repository of videos for the mechanical engineering department at Cal Poly Pomona that has more than 15,000 subscribers and 2 million views. The digitally friendly approach is the exception now, but it might soon be the norm.
“If you’re looking five or 10 years into the future,” Nissenson said, “I think the move toward the adaptive learning platform is going to be a lot more common.”