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Flipping the Script to Collaborative Classrooms

Flipping the Script to Collaborative Classrooms

To ensure undergraduate engineering students learn collaborative skills, schools are teaching teamwork in “flipped classrooms” that move away from lectures and toward small groups.
Almost every professional engineering job requires collaborative skills, which are vital for undergraduate engineering students to learn.
The problem is, they’re not studying such skills, said James Koehn, a business professor at Chadron State University in Chadron, Neb. He has studied the issue with his late father Enno Koehn, who was a civil engineering professor at Lamar University.
“Students have competed against each other since kindergarten,” he said. “They’re usually not encouraged to collaborate. In fact, collaboration may be called cheating.”
The divide between the classroom and the field can cause problems in the workplace because new engineers must bridge the gap between the way they’ve been taught and how they’re now expected to work, which is in teams, Koehn said.

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Last year, when Darrin Lewiston entered the newly founded mechanical degree program at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, he thought teamwork would be the least of his problems. He had already worked in retail and autobody stores and could speak easily with customers and help them with their problems.
Now, with one year of engineering instruction under his belt, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he said. “Working on a tough problem and knowing how and when to add to a team is really different from chit-chatting with customers and helping them decide which color shirt to buy.”
Loras enrolls around 1,300 students, so Lewiston had the benefit of small classes and hands-on learning, which helped hone collaboration skills, he said.
Students at larger schools, who attend lectures and then take quizzes on what they’ve learned, don’t enjoy those benefits.
Yet, teamwork and communication skills are among the five most emphasized skills for students moving into engineering careers, said Patricia Ralston, professor of engineering at University of Louisville, in Kentucky.

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With that in mind, many academic researchers are calling for engineering curriculum that emphasizes the collaboration and teamwork that will become part of an engineer’s day-to day. The flipped classroom moves away from large lectures to an active learning environment, Ralston said.
In flipped classrooms, students become active learners, which means they engage more with the material and each other, learning to work together in the process, she added.
The benefits of this type of education extend well beyond teamwork. Students gain communication and critical thinking, and presentation skills needed on the job, said Hyun Jin Cho, a postdoctoral research associate in the Center for Instructional Excellence at Purdue University.
Cho was part of a Purdue research team that spearheaded a five-year study on flipped classrooms for mechanical engineering students. For the study, students watched 10- to 15-minute instructor-led videos online that took the place of a lecture and freed class time for collaborative activities. The topic that semester: How mechanical forces and thermal loads affect deformable materials.

Friday was quiz day for the material and students worked together to solve the problems. The instructor oversaw student’s interactions within their small groups and helped when a group struggled with a problem. In all, 313 students took part in the flipped classroom, which ran from 2015 to 2017, while 99 students took part in lecture-style learning, Cho said.
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The researchers found students scored better and showed more enthusiasm for the collaborative style, Cho said.
The flipped-classroom students engaged in meaningful interactions and learned to manage their time, their strategies, approaches, and pace for the instructional material. They also learned to self-regulate, meaning that they learned how appropriate group behavior, including when to speak up and how to best get their thoughts across—a useful skill in an engineering career, she added.
“The biggest thing I learned about working in a team is to stay calm. Also, how to get my voice in there,” agreed Lewiston. “Sometimes, in retail, you could get angry with customers and then go in the back and vent. In engineering, that’s your team. They’re not customers. When I get upset at a teammate, I have to learn to control myself, but still get my voice in there.”
Jean Thilmany is a science and technology writer in Saint Paul, Minn.

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