URI professors awarded NSF grant to develop new lab curriculum

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For Further Information: Mayrai Gindy 401-874-5587

New approach to engineering education at URI has students designing their own experiments

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 28, 2007 – Students enrolled in a new structural engineering laboratory course at the University of Rhode Island not only have to successfully complete a series of complex scientific experiments, they also have to design the experiments themselves.

This new approach to teaching engineering skills and problem solving is the result of a National Science Foundation grant awarded to two URI civil engineering professors who recognize that students learn better through self-directed inquiry rather than simple transmission of knowledge.

“The lab challenges students to reach a deeper level of understanding by clearly defining an engineering problem, creatively outlining several testing approaches, successfully formulating a convincing argument, and effectively communicating with group members,” said Mayrai Gindy, assistant professor of civil engineering. “This learner-centered, discovery-based approach to an interdisciplinary topic strengthens students’ technical and practical experiences while intensifying their enthusiasm for learning.”

Gindy and Professor George Tsiatas were awarded the $148,462 grant to design a laboratory course in structural engineering instrumentation and measurements. Working in collaboration with an external evaluator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they are designing learning materials and a series of increasingly complex modules that resemble real-world situations.

In one example, students learn to identify and assess structural damage to steel trusses without being provided with a predefined experimental procedure. Several different approaches to the problem – each using unrelated measurement devices and technologies — will yield successful results, so it is likely that different students will approach the same problem in a variety ways.

“This laboratory introduces engineering students to a completely new way of approaching experiments through discovery-based learning,” Gindy said. “Ultimately it should help students learn and retain engineering concepts and principles more effectively.”

After designing the learning modules, faculty partners from Rutgers University and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth will test them with their students and evaluate their use before they become a permanent part of the curriculum.

URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography