Teaching authentic research problems: Wendy Crone's Introduction to Engineering Research

Wendy Crone Wendy Crone is eager to experiment, not only in her research career as a faculty member in the department of Engineering Physics, but also in her classroom. "I think... that students learn the most and take away the most and retain the most when they are having an experience that is somehow authentic to them... That's my ultimate goal, learning about various different methods to bring authentic experiences to my students, to provide opportunities to learn in a way that's meaningful for them."

When her department, Engineering Physics, began working to develop a new undergraduate major, she and her faculty colleagues were eager to provide those kinds of authentic experiences to students who are interested specifically in engineering research.

"This is a major that highlights research careers early on," says Crone, and as such, the faculty was interested in finding ways to help students begin research work as undergraduates. Crone notes that their "main goal was to help undergrads with the transition to doing productive research in a lab setting or a research group setting," and that an important secondary goal was to create community among students who chose the major.

In response to these aims, Crone, along with Prof. Greg Moses and an undergrad who expressed interest in the Engineering Physics major, worked in a Teaching Academy Summer Institute to develop the syllabi and rubrics for a series of courses devoted to teaching the basics of research. The sequence they created focuses on research skills and helps students through an authentic task: developing a research question and turning it into a proposal, a research project, and ultimately a thesis.

"The first course in the sequence [Engineering Physics 468, Introduction to Engineering Research] is about research and topics about the context of research..." It encompasses such topics as "...scientific method, how to do a literature review, reading journal articles, and just a whole series of very practical things," Crone describes.

A subsequent course for senior students takes them through the process of research design: "Students are... developing a proposal for their research, and conducting the research, and writing a thesis and defending it... [the research] would look very much like a masters degree but scaled down a bit," says Crone.

What forms the basis for these courses, which bring junior and senior students together in a weekly hour-long seminar, is a collection of "learning objects" that Crone has begun to assemble with the help of colleagues across the university. "For example," Crone describes, "I wanted them to talk about intellectual property. At first I'd have someone come in and we'd have a great discussion, but... we can't always count on [an outside speaker]... So we've been [collecting] learning objects that are videos and readings and in-class activities and discussion points that an instructor can call upon."

Eventually, Crone hopes to be able to make this collection available on the internet to students and instructors across the university who are interested in helping undergraduates to do research. Already the learning objects are being used in a seminar for undergraduate research assistants with collaborators from the UW Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).

Students do readings or watch videos before class, while the hour of class time is set aside primarily for lively, active discussions. Crone notes that "The students are getting peer mentoring, advice and guidance, and we're teaching them skills and topics in the context of research that would be difficult for them to pick up quickly on their own. This is a crash course - we're not going to make them experts on a topic in one hour, but we can give them some good and useful ideas."

The assessments, too, are authentic. Students complete reflective writing assignments that are based on their research work: early on, they might report on their progress in identifying a mentor, while later, technical memos explain what they've learned about their project and how their question may have changed during the research process. In addition, students are evaluated by their research mentors and through public proposal talks and thesis defenses, foreshadowing the kinds of presentations that they will make as future researchers.

Crone says that she knows the sequence is working because of the excellent class discussions, and from the advice and suggestions that flow between the cohorts. "I thoroughly enjoy that hour of my week," she notes, and further points out that students are invested in it: the student feedback she's received has been instrumental in shaping the courses. "[The students] have helped to identify what some of the issues that they faced were, and how some other students might be able to overcome those problems in easier ways... it's been very much a joint effort in creating this program."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) McClymer, J.F. & Knoles, L.Z. (1992). Ersatz learning, inauthentic testing. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 3, 33-50.

McClymer & Knoles examine pedagogical traditions in American schools, discussing how far removed many lecture classes can be from the practical experience necessary to work in the academic disciplines. They outline "thinking behaviors" which have come into practice across disciplines (using content, problem solving, epistemic, and inquiry) and suggest how these behaviors might be used to think about authentic learning.

2) Svarovsky, G. N., & Shaffer, D. W. (2006). Design meetings and design notebooks as tools for reflection in the engineering design course. Paper presented at the 36th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, San Diego, CA. [Available online through Epistemic Games.]

Svarovsky & Shaffer describe an engineering design course, one based on around solving authentic problems, and show how pedagogical structures can be used to encourage both reflection and practical expertise. This piece provides a nice companion to the case of Crone's Engineering Physics course, because it examines the integration of authentic tasks into a design-focused (rather than research-focused) environment.

3) Barker, K. (2002) At The Helm: A Laboratory Navigator. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

and Barker, K. (2005) At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

Although written by and for biologists, these companion books have useful information for faculty and their students about the research process. Topics range from recruiting and motivating students to how the interpersonal relationships of research groups work.