Are you interested in how the Engineering Unleashed card system can help you develop or enhance your existing courses? Use this strategy to generate ideas and solutions!
by Aaron Sakulich, Associate Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
My mind was wandering during the meeting with the administrator.
I had rehearsed what I was going to say so many times that I was able to recite it on autopilot. As I finished describing the changes that I had made to my laboratory course during the winter of AY 21/22, I realized the administrator was staring at me.
“How on earth did you do all that?” they asked. “You must have been very busy.”
Those words disconnected the autopilot. I was stunned.
“Oh,” I replied. “Busy? Well, it… Yes? Very busy.”
For the rest of the day, I was haunted by the interaction. Not just my inarticulate response, but the administrator’s question.
The previous year, I had completely rewritten the five laboratory experiences for my course during our three-week winter break. Between the omicron surge on campus and renovations to the departmental labs that were running behind schedule, the conventional put-the-cylinder-in-the-load-frame-and-try-not-to-fall-asleep labs just weren’t going to happen.
How had I done it in such a short time period?
I remember my department head suggesting I could make video recordings of the experiments and have the students watch them, but that sounded somehow more boring than actually doing them. I remember not knowing where to start with such a large project, and with time being so short.
After a day or two of fruitless staring at a blank Word document, it occurred to me to go over to Engineering Unleashed and check the cards. Perhaps someone had already produced laboratory activities that would be appropriate for my course content AND could be carried out remotely.
Where to begin?
Searching for the word “fun” returned over one hundred results, but almost all of the returns were “fun” as part of the words “function” or “fundamental”. And at the time, “covid” and “coronavirus” returned no results, although that has since changed.
But the keyword laboratory provided hundreds of returns, one of which caught my eye as I had met the first author listed on the card, Heather Dillon, at a KEEN workshop in 2019. Their card described in-person lab experiments about wave energy research and the entrepreneurial mindset. Completely unrelated to what I was trying to do, but very interesting! As I read, I found my curiosity, creativity, and confidence coming back to me.
Then I found a card by Ranen McLanahan that described how heat transfer can be taught as an ongoing story in which students must survive the depths of an Arctic Winter. Sure, it had nothing about materials properties, but could it be adapted to my course? Nothing came to mind, but I really enjoyed mulling it over.
By the end of reading that heat transfer card, I had decided that my lab experiences would take the form of students replying to letters from a reclusive millionaire that wanted to erect a building in downtown Worcester. The plot would change each week as the millionaire encountered new challenges to his aspirations – and needed the team to provide new data.
So the first lab would focus on student teams organizing themselves as a company, with a charter, positions, a logo, and so on. And I could adapt one assignment from the mix design portion of the American Concrete Institute’s textbook. But what else?
That’s when I stumbled across "Area 51 Artifacts" by Michael Lancia.
In this card, students have to identify unknown materials stolen from Area 51 solely by using material property data. Of course! This would work perfectly! Aliens in Worcester might be a bit of a stretch, but instead I could have my eccentric millionaire ask students to select the best aggregate for concrete based solely on the information provided by five corporations.
And I can cultivate their entrepreneurial mindsets by ensuring there’s no clear-cut, correct answer by asking, "How do you balance the different prices, environmental impacts, and performance of the five aggregate options?" If your students are like mine, questions with ambiguous answers may heartily annoy them, but get them thinking more deeply.
Later in the term, after discussing wood, plastic, and metals, the millionaire could assign each team a material, and tell them they can ask about any three material properties they want. Excellent! The Area 51 Card was an inspiration from which the lab activities basically appeared fully formed - I would have to come up with my own list of materials and associate material properties, but the mechanics of how to implement the activity were quite clear.
So how had I been able to transform my lab class so quickly?
I wasn’t able to find off-the-shelf options perfectly suited to my course among the cards on Engineering Unleashed. But I was able to find inspiration and ideas that could be adapted with a bit of work.
I should have started from an entrepreneurial mindset approach in the first place: Creating value for my students (and myself!) was easy once my curiosity brought me to the Engineering Unleashed card system and I was able to connect my course objectives to what other people were already doing.
Naturally, I created a card with the three activities that I designed as well. Let me know in the card’s Discussion box if you’re curious enough to peruse the card; I’d love to see your work as well.