Putting engagement back into STEM with active learning

In the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, there are so many opportunities to break outside the transmission or lecturing model and really engage students meaningfully in the learning process. Student engagement is essential in STEM units to prepare them for professional lives that will require them to solve complex problems, designing and testing with their colleagues.

The opportunity to re-develop and implement new strategies arose during the SIBT Curriculum Review. Drawing on a set of contemporary learning principles (active learning, authentic learning, technology-enhanced learning and personalised learning) the review process encouraged the use of technology to engage students and enhance learning design.

Below are three learning activities I’ve designed into my units to boost student engagement:

  • Building bridge models to combine learnings and work in a team
  • Using the Socrative app for fun, competitive class revision
  • Using software simulations to give students more access to experiments

Learning by doing: Build bridge models

This activity was designed to improve students’ engineering sense and innovation skills. Students are free to choose their own design or use any identical designs from the literature.

The process of building the truss bridge model requires students to review key concepts from the past five weeks of the semester, connect with peers, and apply their learning in a fun, competitive challenge!

In order to build their model, they need to understand why they’re studying principles of physics and mechanics, how the bridge structure works and why it is designed that way.

We use very simple materials: paddle pop sticks, tape and paper clips.

Then, we test the bridge with weights to see how many kilograms of weight their structure can resist. The winning bridge is the one that can bear the highest load, and its builders then receive the highest grade for that part of the assessment.

As you can see in the video below, students get a real buzz out of the challenge and the element of competition:

Using Socrative for competitive revision

Unlike the traditional quiz you see in the online course space, I’ve started using quizzes in class in a way that shows me gaps in understanding very quickly and is genuinely fun for the students.

Having noticed how frequently students love to use their mobile phones, I wanted to get them playing on their phones to their own benefit: to learn something and enjoy learning.

Every week, students complete a quiz in class that I’ve prepared using Socrative. They use their smartphones to answer my set of questions at the end of the tutorial. Some of the questions may require a bit of working out on paper or by scribbling on their tablet.

The beauty of using Socrative is that I can project a progress table onto the whiteboard, which looks a bit like a live, digital horse race! You can see each student progressing along through the set of questions, but you can also see an instant red or green colour to indicate whether they got the right answer.

It becomes a fun competition between the students – rather than being done on their own as another piece of homework. Having the instant red or green colour lighting up to tell you if you were correct helps ensure students work in a way that is both fast but attentive.

Experimenting via software simulations

When teaching electrical engineering, it’s essential that students don’t just learn the theory around, say, electric circuits, but also get to play with them directly to see the basic principles in action.

I’m now using free online software to make it much more accessible for students to experiment with electrical circuits. The software replaces hardware to simulate different engineering and physical principles. For example in electric circuits, rather than taking students to a lab with limited resources to practice some circuit connection concepts, they can fully set up a simple circuit and explore the effects of different configurations using an interactive simulator. The simulator is available online free and can be accessed from any computer.

We explore the application in the classroom so I can check that they understand how to use it. This is hands-on learning. I’ll be walking around the room demonstrating on my iPad (which is connected to the whiteboard display) and seeing what they’re doing on their screens.

The software simulates some basic principles of physics and mechanics. When they use it, they understand the principles and can practice playing with them – rather than rote learning a rule.

If you’re interested in finding out more, please get in touch via email at Saad.Odeh@sibt.nsw.edu.au, phone on (02) 8236 8075, or in person at Level 4, 255 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, NSW 2000.

More details about this design based course is available in my article, ‘A unified first-year engineering design-based learning course‘, published in the International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education.

Ready to share your own engaging learning activities? Get in touch with learningandteaching@navitas.com