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Engineering fundamentals, geological sciences, mathematics named exemplary departments

By Liz Crumbley and Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 05 - September 26, 1996

The Virginia Tech departments of engineering fundamentals (EF), geological sciences, and mathematics have been selected as University Exemplary Departments for 1996.

Susan Brooker-Gross, associate provost for undergraduate programs, said the three departments were chosen for their work in developing and sustaining innovative and effective approaches to introductory courses.

The Exemplary Departments Awards Program was established by the Office of the Provost in 1994 to recognize departments and programs that maintain exemplary teaching and learning environments for students and faculty members.

An awards presentation and reception, hosted by Provost Peggy Meszaros and Brooker-Gross, will be held September 30 at 5 p.m. in the University Club's Emerald Room for faculty and staff members and spouses of the three exemplary departments.

"Deviating from tradition to apply innovative teaching measures requires considerable additional faculty time," said EF Department Head Dan Ludwig.

Every year, EF faculty members take about 1,400 engineering freshmen through a two-semester block of required fundamentals courses designed to prepare the students for the rigors of the next three years of study and to introduce them to the engineering profession. Despite the large number of freshmen, EF classes are held with a maximum of 32 students.

All Tech engineering freshman are required to have personal computers with multi-media capabilities, and EF has devised several in-class and homework computer-use techniques. "With graphics software replacing T-squares and drawing instruments," Ludwig said, "our faculty members relate their instruction to the rapidly changing technologies that we require students to own, and with which industry expects them to be familiar."

The EF curriculum also includes a semester of hands-on design work. Grouped into teams of three, the freshmen are required to complete an engineering design project and make formal presentations to faculty members and classmates. In 1994, Tech EF students placed first in the American Society for Engineering Education's national design competition; in 1995 they placed second.

For the past five years, 56 of the most highly qualified entering freshmen have participated in EF's scholarship program. These students are assigned 25 percent more material than other freshmen and the highest achievers have the opportunity during spring semester to work on projects with senior-level design teams or with faculty members in other engineering departments.

The EF department was the first in the U.S. to produce a custom-made textbook, designed specifically for Tech engineering students.

One indication that these approaches work, Ludwig said, is that Tech's College of Engineering maintains a retention rate for freshmen that averages between 66 and 75 percent annually. Typically, he said, a 50-percent retention rate is considered normal for engineering schools.

"This award provides satisfaction that our work is appreciated," Ludwig said, "and it should spur us to continue to seek the most effective approaches for teaching freshmen."

The EF department will receive $10,000 as part of its award.

The Department of Geological Sciences was chosen for the Exemplary Department Award for its work with its physical-geology laboratory. The department will receive $10,000. Barbara Bekken, an assistant professor in the department, nominated the department for its "exceptional progress and innovative design adopted for the restructured curriculum" of its most popular introductory laboratory course, Physical Geology 1104.

The course, which enrolls more than 1,000 students annually, has been completely revised according to current reforms in science education, Bekken said. The design and pedagogy adopted for the course, she said, have received national recognition through invited symposia and two invited publications as an example of reforms in geoscience education that promote increased scientific literacy among non-scientists. Redesigning the course took three years of study and revision. The pedagogy of the course was switched to one that emphasizes inquiry-based, cooperative small-group learning and de-emphasizes classic "instruction." Course objectives shifted from memorized product to reasoned process.

"Probably the most significant change to the laboratory course was to create a classroom learning environment that is more appealing to non-science students," Bekken said. "The environment encourages more connectedness to what students already know about their world, to why geoscientists understand the Earth as they do, to how these facts generate knowledge and are applied to the big picture." The process gives students the opportunity to reason, Bekken said, "to practice higher-order thinking," and the instructor's role is that of facilitator, not lecturer, as the students discover the points of the lessons themselves.

For the class, students create a geologic map and develop a reasoned stance on a timely issue such as the proposed location of a hazardous-waste site. An independent group-based term project encourages students to tackle issues and concerns related to local geology in a way that models the way scientists, researchers, community leaders and local advocates collect data and become informed about their local environment. A one-day additional workshop for graduate-teaching-assistant (GTA) instructors acquaints the GTA's with the new curriculum.

"This project has been successful because, through self-discovery, each student takes charge of his/her own learning and through constant and careful organization, each of 1,000 students is recognized as an individual and unique learner who can reason and thereby contribute knowledge to the group," Bekken said.

The Department of Mathematics, which will receive $20,000, was nominated as an exemplary department for its work in developing and sustaining innovative and effective departmental approaches to introductory courses, particularly the series of freshman-level mathematics courses in the calculus sequence taken by engineering majors and many science majors, and in a self-paced version of Math 1015, the first course in the calculus sequence typically taken by most students in agriculture and life sciences, forestry and wildlife resources, biology, geology, psychology, sociology, geography and human resources and education.

John Muffo wrote in his nomination letter that the mathematics department has an enormous impact on Virginia Tech undergraduate students, since roughly a third of all Tech undergraduates take mathematics classes at any one time. In particular, Department Head Robert Olin said, in the past academic year, the enrollment in the six courses that make up the engineering/science calculus sequence was approximately 8,700. In fall semester alone, 1,387 students took Math 1015 and another 425 took the engineering precalculus course.

"We are taking a many-pronged approach to developing effective, sustainable and innovative approaches to introductory undergraduate instruction," Olin said. The department's aim, he said, is both to increase the quality of instruction and discover ways to teach increased numbers of students with the recent reduction in the faculty.

The department is making efforts in eight areas: (1) restructuring/reform in the engineering/science calculus sequence, including reform textbooks and inclusion of Mathematica; (2) placement in the calculus sequence; (3) integration of computer technology into the calculus sequence, including enhanced understanding, use of current computational tools, improved communication between students and faculty members, and increased efficiency; (4) a self-paced version of Math 1015 involving computer tutoring and testing, (5) assessment of such things as content, thinking processes, products, diversity and access, and perceived value; (6) GTA training, including training with Mathematica and an apprenticeship program; (7) efforts to assist minority students, including a student transitional program in the summer and an organization for minority math majors; and (8) the V-QUEST collaborative efforts with other universities, community colleges, and high schools designed to improve the teaching of mathematics. Dean Robert Bates cited items 1, 3, 4, and 8 when he awarded the mathematics department the Dean's Exemplary Department Award for its outstanding accomplishments in 1995.

Engineering student Amanda C. Martin said, in her letter supporting the nomination, that she feels the math department does an extraordinary job. "I feel that their introduction of the technology of computer applications such as Mathematica and MatLab into the introductory courses is a tremendous asset to the presentation of the course material." Mathematics major Karen Potanka said, "I found that by using Mathematica, I became a more active learner. I took more responsibility in understanding the theory of the mathematics before entering the computer lab, and I found that I interacted much more with the professor."

Thomas Head, director of Media Services, said the department's "efforts have gone beyond course restructuring in the traditional sense in that they have changed the fundamental goals of the course, which emphasize a higher level of understanding of mathematical concepts."