Engineering students are learning to solve problems because the educational focus is shifting away from lectures, problems, and labs.
Like most subject areas, engineering is experiencing an increase in the demand for real-world, problem-based education. By making greater use of new technology and shifting their classroom focus, many post-secondary engineering educators are finding success in a "flipped" model.
Traditionally, engineering classes have been lecture-based, supplemented by weekly tutorials and laboratory work. Course material is focused on facts, theories, and equations Learning activities include reading, exercises, and assignments. Students are expected to acquire knowledge, but aren’t necessarily required to apply it to real-world scenarios, nor are they asked to find information through their own exploration.
Traditional teaching and learning methods in engineering certainly have their merits, but shifts in the demands placed on engineers, coupled with the emergence of new educational technology, have exposed a number of gaps. First, traditional engineering education is often one-directional, with limited time for interaction between student and instructor. Today, students need to engage in inquiry, exploration, and concrete problem-solving. They also need opportunities for innovation and experimentation, but such opportunities may be limited. What's more, traditional models of engineering education don't necessarily encourage students to take ownership over their own learning. From a teaching perspective, traditional models don't always take advantage of the real-world experience of instructors, as their roles are composed largely of dispensing information and grading assignments.
The flipped classroom
In a flipped classroom, facts and theories are still important, but they take up far less of the time students spend with their instructors. Basic knowledge is covered outside of class time, through media such as online video tutorials, downloadable notes, and visual aids. Resources like these can be created by instructors themselves, or external resources can be recommended. This frees up class time for work on actual problems and projects, and inquiry-based tasks that put skills and knowledge to use. Projects are often completed in collaboration with other students, with instructors acting as facilitators and guides.
Although making this kind of shift does require some effort, the benefits of a flipped classroom for students can be extensive. Through the flipped model, students get a better picture of what it’s really like to be an engineer, and not just an engineering student. They’re given a real-world context for what they learn in class. Students are encouraged to take ownership over their learning. If they want to succeed, they not only have to take responsibility for covering basic facts and theories on their own time, but must make an effort to participate in classroom inquiry. The reward for their efforts is a learning environment that invites collaboration with other learners, and that is geared toward the real-world experiences they’ll have as an engineer.
Instructors also benefit from the flipped classroom model because their roles change to that of a mentor or facilitator. Instructors get the opportunity to share their insights and experience with students and participate in the learning process themselves. That experience results in instructors attaining a much better understanding of how much their students learn. Flipped classrooms present a unique opportunity to instructors to confer with other instructors as well.
In some ways, the accessibility of information via digital media is causing most classrooms to "flip" in some sense. Raw data and theory can be assigned as independent online study, but having an effective learning management system is a valuable way to organize, present, and contextualize the information students learn on their own. Moreover, with space and resources at a premium for many academic institutions, online communities of inquiry are redefining what it means to "be there" in the classroom. That allows collaboration and innovation even through remote learning.