Linking Engineering to Daily Life: A Profile of Chin Wu

Chin WuFluid mechanics is one of the more difficult disciplines in civil and environmental engineering due to its complex mathematics, Chin Wu tells me, but at the same time, people experience its principles every day of their lives. It is this tendency, this everyday exposure to water and its properties, that Wu uses to motivate his students. "...[When students learn how] to apply these things to daily life, they can see 'oh, everything is fluid mechanics, I had better learn it,'" says Wu.

He explains further: "Why can a garden sprinkler rotate when you turn on the water faucet? Fluid mechanics. How do you throw a curveball? Fluid mechanics... The thing that I really want to show them is how to learn fluid mechanics principles by visualizing, feeling, and doing simple experiments at school, at work, or even at home."

Wu believes that once students gain an understanding of how engineering principles are intimately connected to their lives, they become motivated to learn the details of complex mathematical equations. "Some people can imagine how [the equations] work, but imagination is different than visualizations and doing experiments... These kinds of examples really give students a strong feeling about fluid mechanics, and that will help them remember what they learned from the textbook. For example, when you are running out of gas, how do you siphon the gasoline from your car to a lawn mower? Remember to call Bernoulli! These daily life examples really touch them," he says.

Wu threads these real-world applications throughout his course - using "pictures of the week" to explain the engineering properties of common objects during lecture, simulating the motions of waves in labs, or teaching students how to take temperature and velocity measurements on field trips to Lake Mendota, Wingra, or Michigan.

He is also eager for students to bring their own explanations of similar objects into class. At the end of Fluid Mechanics, an introductory course required for undergraduates (CEE 310), Wu includes an extra credit option for his students - making a video that demonstrates everyday fluid principles. He feels that this type of assignment is important because "if they know how to apply, then they know how fluid principles work. Once they go through this process, they begin to think about the meaning of equations, not just how to solve exam or homework problems to get through a required course."

2006 Coastal Engineering students on a field trip to Green BayWu's more advanced courses (e.g. Coastal Engineering - CEE 514) require an intensive project in which students develop a question to explore, make a plan for conducting research, and present their results in website form. (Past projects from Wu's Coastal Engineering course can be found here.) "I get emails from people all over the world asking for more information about some of those projects," he reports proudly.

These project topics range widely with students' interest. Past topics include an analysis of tsunami risk in the Indian ocean, an assessment of coastal structures in Lake Mendota, and designs for water quality improvement in Lake Wingra. Wu is especially pleased when doing the projects helps to motivate students to learn further. "Once they start to apply the basic principles they learn in the class they start to feel how limited their understanding is, and that will urge them to go take more advanced classes. That's more convincing than me telling them 'you should do this' or 'you need to learn that.' This lifelong learning skill," Wu says, "is the most important skill for students pursuing an engineering career."

Wu notes further that research design and project presentation are important practical skills for students to develop. "I [could] give them a very difficult exam, but when you go out into the world, you do projects. Your boss will be judging you by the outcome of your projects. If you take an academic job, people judge you by the publications about your projects."

Beyond the more practical work that projects do for advanced students - motivation and skill-building - Wu believes strongly that advising students on their projects reinforces professors' ability to get to know individual students, their interests, and their learning styles, elements that he believes should be central to all teaching.

Wu acknowledges that it can be very difficult to get to know all of the students, especially in a large lecture, so he makes time to talk with each of them at least twice a semester when he hands their exams back.

"I talk to each of them after every exam, every time I see them in the hallway," Wu says, "that is my philosophy. Teach to all, despite their differences, and for all, based on each individual's characteristics. After the exam, I want to know where they are in their understanding... Where they are struggling with concepts or mathematics. They appreciate that you care about them. My objective is to really know each of them from their different backgrounds. Then, during the class, I can ask suitable questions and inspire them to another level. The interaction with each student helps other students - and myself - to learn more."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) Grimes, D., Warschauer, M., Hutchinson, T. & Kuester, F. (2006). Civil Engineering Education in a Visualization Environment: Experiences with VizClass. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(3). (This article is available electronically through UW Libraries.)

This article discusses the experiences of a group of instructors who implemented VizClass, a computerized "visualization system" developed specifically for teaching engineering, in their civil engineering classes. VizClass includes virtual whiteboards and three- dimensional displays, and while more technology-enhanced than the everyday tools described by Wu above, the aims are similar - to give instructors a way to show students complex engineering principles. This study, accomplished through the qualitative and quantitative analysis of the classrooms of these instructors, suggests that teaching with visualizations can produce clear benefits for both students and teachers.

2) Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7. (This article is available electronically here - clicking link will open PDF.)

Chickering & Gamson focus on several techniques that instructors can employ in order to improve their teaching - the first being contact between students and faculty members. It is, as they say "the most important factor in student motivation and involvement," helping students to become intellectually engaged, encouraging them to work through difficulties, and helping them to achieve at a high level.