Engaging Students with the Creative Art of Civil Engineering

Aatish Bhatia, Evelyn Laffey, and Maria Garlock 

Presented at: 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Abstract: We report on the progress of a multi-institutional NSF-funded education project called the Creative Art of Structural and Civil Engineering. The specific goals of the project are to: 1. Transform an introductory engineering course with dramatically improved interactivity and accessibility for students of all backgrounds and majors; 2. Ensure that the course takes a form that can be readily adopted into the engineering and general education curricula of many types of institutions of higher learning; 3. Facilitate the dissemination, adoption, and continuous improvement of these course materials and teaching methods.

In this report, we focus on the version of this course taught at Princeton University, Structures and the Urban Environment. The course examines the great works of engineers through case studies, critically evaluating them on scientific and aesthetic grounds, as well as analyzing the social context in which these works arose. For example, the minimal and sleek reinforced concrete bridges of Robert Maillart, or the ultra-lightweight thin-shell structures built by Félix Candela highlight how engineers can innovate with new materials to develop new aesthetic forms. Furthermore, by integrating efficiency, economy, and elegance, these works stress the importance of finding optimal forms for structures, and demonstrate how great works of engineering can be well-integrated into their environment.

This project is relevant to the wider civil engineering community as it serves to engage a wide student body in understanding and appreciating the role of civil engineers in society. Furthermore, by spreading inspiring and engaging introductory course materials that adopt research-based teaching methods, integrate STEM with the humanities, and emphasize the social relevance, technical challenges, and creative aspects of the discipline, this project helps meet an urgent need to improve the retention of students in STEM disciplines.

Since the launch of this project, our activities have included: developing, incorporating, and documenting active learning exercises and lecture materials; developing and analyzing student surveys, and conducting interviews and focus groups; identifying themes and learning goals; developing a website to disseminate teaching materials; organizing an annual workshop for universities interested in adopting course materials and teaching methods; and continuing to mentor workshop participants.

We adapted the Student Assessment of Learning Gains survey to assess learning outcomes. In the first year of implementing this project, a large majority of students reported moderate, good, or great learning gains from lecture demonstrations (94%), the instructional approach taken in the class (90%), and hands-on activities (83%). With regard to course themes, 80% or more of students reported moderate to great learning gains in evaluating significant works of civil engineering based on their social, scientific and symbolic importance; relating the forms of structures they encounter in daily life to their function and to forces; possessing an aesthetic and technical appreciation for bridges, towers, shells, and other structures; and comparing, contrasting, and critiquing structures as works of structural art. These results highlight the efficacy of the teaching methods adopted and active learning exercises developed and implemented in this project.




Enhancing Student Cognition and Affect through the Creative Art of Structural and Civil Engineering

Evelyn Laffey, Maria Garlock, and Aatish Bhatia

Presented at: 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Abstract:The purpose of this evidenced-based practice paper is to report on the Creative Art of Structural and Civil Engineering (CASCE), which is a multi-institutional, NSF-funded educational project. The current paper will report on one aspect of CASCE - the impact of the Princeton University Structures and the Urban Environment (heretofore Structures) course on students’ cognition and affect. With an enrollment of approximately 150 students, the course aims to enhance cognition within the domain of STEM-literacy for students majoring in engineering, the humanities, or social sciences. Additionally, the course aims to positively impact students’ affect by attending to their motivation, attitudes, beliefs and self-efficacy towards STEM content and engineering as a creative profession.

National discourse on STEM education urges educators to attend to the growing demand for a STEM-literate populace. With fewer than 40% of college students intending on majoring in STEM graduating, there is a need to address retention and graduation in higher education. Furthermore, as noted by the NAE and ASEE it is important for all students to appreciate the central role of engineering in all facets of modern life. The civil engineering ideas disseminated by the Structures course are vital to STEM non-majors and majors alike, because civil engineers design and build the systems that give us shelter (buildings), enable transportation (roads, bridges, ports), and bring us water and power (dams, reservoirs). Also, the faculty utilized evidenced-based teaching practices with the aim of enhancing students’ cognition and affect, as well as addressing retention and overall student satisfaction

Three research questions guided the evaluation: (1) As reported by the students, to what extent did the course enhance students’ STEM-literacy? (2) How did the course impact students’ affect with regards to their motivation, attitudes, beliefs, and engineering self-efficacy? (3) To what extent did the use of evidence-based teaching practices impact the student experience in the Structures course? To answer the guiding research questions, we utilized a mixed-method approach to collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data was collected in the form of course grades and surveys to measure impact on cognition and affect. Focus groups, individual interviews and open-ended questions on surveys garnered qualitative data. Principles of Grounded Theory were utilized to analyze the qualitative data. Preliminary findings from the analysis of the quantitative data revealed: 89% of students experienced moderate to great gain in interest in engineering; 85% reported moderate to great gain in recognizing engineering as a creative profession; 83% indicated moderate to great gain in understanding how engineering helps people address real world issues; and 78% of students reported a moderate to great gain in their STEM abilities.

If accepted, we will report on the evaluation of the Structures course that has given students the opportunity to explore engineering as a creative profession and, as a result, it has positively changed perceptions about engineering and the societal role of engineers for students from various majors. The course also provides a framework for introducing engineering to students majoring in the humanities and social sciences.