Finding and Sharing Exciting Results
When Paul Evans, assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering, decided to include student presentations in his Electronic, Optical, and Magnetic Properties of Materials course, he initially thought that the work of creating slides and presenting reviews of research would help his students to become more comfortable with presentation skills.
"But," Evans says, "that turned out not to be the case. Undergraduates in the College of Engineering are already very used to that because they have been presenting their projects in front of groups for a long time" by the time they have settled into the Materials Science department and take his elective class as juniors or seniors.
Instead, Evans has found that the most significant benefits of his students' project work - which includes choosing a topic, researching the field around the topic, selecting a significant recent result, discussing the importance of that result in front of the larger class, and writing up the presentation as a paper - are the questions and the interests that students develop as they work on their projects during the semester.
While students gain lots of experience learning concepts and working through set problems in their coursework, he notes, they are given far fewer opportunities to develop interest in a specific field, map out the important features of a discipline, and develop an understanding of why certain research findings are especially interesting or important.
When they begin working on their projects, "there's no way that the students are going to be able to survey the field as it is and know that a certain paper that was published last month will become central ten years from now. But it's important to try to identify those papers," Evans explains. "It's valuable to gain the skills of reading a paper, looking for exciting results, and figuring out what it would mean for something to be really interesting and exciting."
In this way, he believes that the papers and presentations that students write for his class can be good preparation for the work that many students will go on to pursue in graduate school or industry.
"The projects can be a little bit like thesis defenses, in that the students basically have to prepare a short seminar about a result, and they have to write up that result. It lacks the creativity of original thesis research, of course, but the students have to understand the field and where the result that they are presenting fits into it. Then, they have to be able to talk about the specific technical accomplishment and how it contributes, how it's important to the larger field," Evans explains.
And, because all students are presenting on results that are new - two years old or fewer - the presentations help to show how quickly the field of Materials Science is changing around them.
"The students respond really well to the seminar spirit of it," he says, because they are excited to pursue their own interests in this project. "They really want to share the new things that they've learned about, and there's often a little discussion after each presentation, depending on how intrigued people were. If one group is talking about transparent conducting materials, then other students who worked on something different might get interested, and that's a really positive thing."
At the end of each semester, when all of the projects have been presented and turned in, Evans surveys his class to learn about their opinion of the course on the whole and the paper specifically. He writes a specific attitude survey about their experience in the course, asking students to share their feelings on different assignments and topics, course organization, the amount of time spent on various topics, and the format of the project presentations.
"The survey is one of the most useful assessments I do, especially when I'm planning for the next semester. I always promise that I won't read it until grades are turned in, so they can feel free to tell me if they don't like something. Sometimes I talk to the students about it, too," Evans says.
"They like the project and think that it's valuable. Sometimes I've asked them whether to narrow it to a specific field, so they'd all do projects on something like solar energy, and typically they don't want that. They like the freedom to pick their own topic."
For more information about the ideas in this article:
This section of the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide focuses on attitude surveys, examining the situations in which this type of assessment can be useful. The FLAG suggests that attitudinal surveys can provide instructors with feedback about what students know, what they have learned about a certain topic, and what kinds of preferences students have about the ways in which they learn. This type of feedback - the type of survey that Paul Evans used to assess how his students felt about the course structure and projects - can help instructors assess their teaching strategies or decide how to organize future course material.