How to Combine Lecture and Lab to Teach the "Messiness" of Engineering

How to Combine Lecture and Lab to Teach the "Messiness" of Engineering

Photo: Rod Searcey for Stanford CTL

Instructors: Sheri Sheppard, Sarah Billington
Department/School: School of Engineering
Course: ENGR 14:  Intro to Solid Mechanics
Audience: mostly sophomores (limited to 100 students)

Course Description: Large class working in small groups (“pods”); lecture and lab combined
Schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:15-3:05 p.m.


Goals: Sheppard and Billington recognize that, at its core, teaching solid mechanics means helping students to understand how loads interact with structures. A structure can be something as complex as a bridge or as simple as a fork. At some point, all structures respond to the input of a load, and they either remain standing or fall down.  As both individual and co-instructors, Sheppard and Billington want their students to develop an understanding of fundamental physics and then be able to apply those principles to real systems.

This is a class meant to expose students to thinking about the very nature of being an engineer. According to Sheppard, “You can teach these topics in a fairly abstract, theoretical way [...] or you can teach it in a way that's really connected with messy problems, with the ambiguity of real engineering, with the teamwork of engineering.” This teaching team has adopted the messier route, and their goals boil down to three:

  1. By engaging in the engineering process, students should understand that mapping principles to problems isn’t always perfect. Students should be able to become comfortable with the messiness of engineering.
  2. Students should develop the critical engineering skill of learning to look at a problem, decompose it, and then analyze it. In the process of learning to think like engineers, students should be better able to decide if they want this kind of thinking to be a part of their future professional work.
  3. By working in teams, students should develop awareness and, hopefully, an acceptance of the social nature of engineering. Engineering gets done in teams, so it’s important for students to develop teambuilding skills early on.

Sheri Sheppard and an E14 course assistant talking in classApproach:  The first step Sheppard took in originally developing the course was to move away from the traditional teaching structure of three lectures a week for 50 minutes and one lab session. Instead, she shifted to just two, two-hour-long sessions per week.  In doing so, she hoped that students would be better able to blur the lines between lecture, where students are fairly passive and taking notes, and lab, where students are expected to be very active.  In the new structure, the instructors can shift back and forth between mini-lectures, problem solving in pairs, and lab work, all in the same big classroom.

To make this work, Sheppard had to rethink the role of their course assistants (CAs).  “What's the role of CAs in the class?” asked Sheppard.  “In the old model, where there's a lecture, you know, the CAs may or may not attend the lecture. And if they do, they're kind of sitting passively in the back of the room, which doesn't seem like a very good use of their time.” In contrast, in the lab they suddenly become these active facilitators.  By integrating those lab activities right into the two-hour class period, Sheppard was able to make better use of the CAs as consistently active teaching resources.  “I really look at the CAs as a critical element in the whole learning process,” says Sheppard.

This kind of innovation can take time to implement successfully, but it pays off in the long run. After Sheppard taught the course a few times, Billington joined her, and explains, "We now have a script for each week, and we have a weekly staff meeting that takes about an hour. It’s not that much work once you figure out what works for your class. It does take a couple of rounds of teaching the class to know what the script is, so there is an upfront investment for sure, but once you have that system in place, then it's really repeatable without a lot of extra effort.”

E14 students work on upside-down bicycle in a groupIn-class Strategies:  In their class of about 100 students, all students are divided into four groups, or pods, during the second day of class.  One CA is assigned to each pod of 25 students, who all sit together in the same area of the classroom.  Where each pod sits in the classroom is assigned ahead of time, and the instructors make efforts to rotate those locations regularly so that no one group is always in the back.  

These pods make for a really dynamic classroom. “So now if I've given a little mini-lecture of, you know, 10 or 15 minutes on a concept, and I've started them on a problem, then they can be turning to the person next to them, who is in their same pod, and they continue working on it,” says Sheppard.

Carefully designed worksheets help students’ work stand out to CAs, who circulate to make sure that students are completing all of the steps.  CAs who come across a struggling student can then stop to address the issue right in the middle of the class. Alternatively, CAs can probe students who finish early to think more about what the implications of their solutions might be. In this way, CAs become much more active during class.

One plus of requiring CAs to be engaged in this way is that it leads to a fairly self-selecting group of CAs who really care about teaching. Their drive inevitably contributes to the excellence of the teaching team. Each CA runs one lab each quarter. That means that they first become knowledgeable about the lab, train the other TAs how to help their pods get through it, and then introduce it to the class.  In taking ownership of a lab, CAs get valuable teaching and leadership experience.  “It’s more responsibility, but they also get more out of it,” says Billington.

Having two lead instructors for this course has also been key to its refinement.  Sheppard has taught the course on her own and Billington will do so next year.  They have taught it twice as a team.  When co-teaching, “We both go to all of the classes,” says Billington, “and we each learn from each other. She saw how I would do things, and I saw how she did things. We both benefited a lot from that.” As one instructor lectures, the other moves about the room just like the CAs. Having an extra set of eyes and ears helps to ensure that even questions raised in the back of the room get addressed by the instructor at the front. "Students feel more supported by the teaching team," says Billington.  “When there is only one instructor, having engaged CAs becomes particularly important,” adds Sheppard.

One final benefit of the re-imagined teaching team is that grading becomes more manageable and more fair. Reports Billington, “The grading was done by all of us." To increase the number of graders successfully, they made sure that all grading procedures are explicitly communicated across the whole teaching team.  One of the benefits of co-teaching is that the two lead teachers must be clear with one another about expectations regarding assessments, which then better enables them to produce clear rubrics for their CAs and students as well.  Moreover, because of the size of the teaching team, they can afford to double-grade both major projects, which contributes to greater fairness in the grading process.

Male undergrads, outside, working on upside-down bicycleOut-of-class strategies:  Much of homework takes the form of problem sets, or P-sets, where students must integrate technical information and applied mathematics to solve visual representations of problems and come up with a numerical solution.  Problem sets are also meant to introduce students to the style that engineers use to present their work.  Problem sets must be completed on a particular style of paper and organized in a specific way. “It makes the grading a heck of a lot easier,” admits Sheppard, “and it really represents how practicing engineers do their work.”  Students can find out-of-class support during the teaching team’s office hours.

Students also must complete two group projects outside of class. The first is to design a 24-centimeter-long bridge that has to withstand a particular load. The specificity of the load is key, because part of the challenge is to make sure that the bridge will fail within a certain range of loads. Sheppard explains, “We're wanting to get them in the mindset that the goal isn't building the strongest artifact possible. It's actually building one that meets the client's needs.”

The second project revolves around a problem that the students must identify themselves. “The idea there is to really start tapping into their interests in technology, whether that be airplanes or skateboards or cars or prosthetic devices,” explains Sheppard.  They have to ask themselves, “What's important to me in terms of technology affecting people?”  Again, students must work in teams, so they also learn to work through the tensions of finding both a topic and somebody with whom to work.

Prof. Sarah Billington teachingLessons Learned:  “I’ve learned how to bring more activity into the class without losing the important content," says Billington. "For example, instead of maybe showing them five examples, I’ll show one have them work through just two." It may take longer for students to work through the examples themselves, but through the questions raised along the way, they learn the material better.  If some students want more examples, Billington can always point to additional ones in the book.  In this way, an instructor keeps lectures short and leaves time for more hands-on work and question and answer time.  

One of the lessons Sheppard reports having learned is that “working with the person next to you isn't necessarily easy for a lot of students. How do you help people learn to feel comfortable with someone they may or may not know very well, to dive into a technical problem and learn to help one another?"  Now, Sheppard and Billington include guidelines in the syllabus to help students work together more effectively, an idea they got from Prof. Emeritus Bob Calfee of the Graduate School of Education.  CAs have also become bolder in their attempts to get students to work collaboratively.  Helping students understand the intentionality of relationships in engineering was key to the success of the students in the class, and will likely play a huge role in their future engineering careers.

Female undergrads outside with bike, laughing

Plans for next iteration of the course:  The teaching team is still fine-tuning how much support to give to students as they design and implement their final project, the one where students must come up with their own questions to answer.  Sheppard and Billington plan to increase the amount of coaching they give to students in future classes.

Sheppard and Billington also plan to tap more into students’ interest in sustainability and the world of development.  Students will be encouraged to remember that engineering decisions do not take place in an ethical vacuum, which plays right into the teaching team’s focus on the messy side of engineering.

See Also

Team-Based Problem Solving

Project-Based Learning

Sample Small-Group Exercises

Top Ten Team Teaching Tips

Team Teaching: Worth the Challenge

About the Teaching Team

Prof. Sarah Billington

Sarah Billington, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Milligan Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, is invested in helping students understand how durable construction materials can contribute to sustainable engineering practices.  A distinguished structural engineering scholar, Billington’s recent work has focused on biorenewable composites.



Prof. Sheri Sheppard

Sheri Sheppard, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the Burton J. and Deedee McMurtry University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, is deeply engaged with research on education in engineering.  She’s particularly interested in helping students and teachers alike understand what it takes to be a good engineer. Sheppard also teaches “Designing the Professional” in collaboration with the at Stanford.


Top Ten Team Teaching Tips

Team Teaching: Worth the Challenge