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Independent Learning using CES EduPack with Large Class Sizes

Dr Claire Davis | University of Birmingham

Independent Learning using CES EduPack with Large Class Sizes

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In 2003, with the formation of the School of Engineering at the University of Birmingham, common teaching was introduced to first-year undergraduates across the engineering disciplines. A module entitled 'Properties and Applications of Materials (PAM)' was designed according to requirements by the participating engineering departments (Chemical, Civil, Mechanical, Materials; including Biomedical and Sports topics). Over three hundred undergraduate students take this module in the first semester of their first year. In 2007 a campus-wide licence for the CES Edupack software was purchased by the School of Engineering to support materials selection teaching. Dedicated courses on materials selection, using the software, had been taught for a number of years in the Department of Metallurgy and Materials, but only to small classes (typically 15-55) using a combination of lectures and tutorial sessions run in the computer suite. It was felt appropriate that all engineering students should become familiar with the software at an early stage of their undergraduate studies and the PAM module presented the ideal opportunity for this. In introducing the CES Edupack software, several criteria had to be met: the number of contact hours and assessed coursework elements within PAM were not to be increased; independent learning was to be promoted; and the existing syllabus, developed in consultation with the participating engineering departments, had to be maintained (within which there was only a small amount of content on materials selection). Thus it was not practical to substitute any lecture time with computer laboratory sessions. In the academic year 2007/8 the software was made available to students on the engineering computer clusters and via a CD available for personal use. Its use was demonstrated within lectures and a limited number of data-collection exercises were suggested. However, as the decision to introduce the software, and its availability, coincided with the start of the teaching session, no formal exercises were developed and integrated into the course. Questionnaires and discussions with students were carried out to determine their response to the introduction of the software. It was found that although use of the software was optional, at least 52% of students chose to use it during the teaching session (and it is expected that many more would have used it during the revision period). In addition 93% of students who returned the questionnaire realised the potential of the software as an effective and beneficial tool, even if they did not use it to support their learning in the PAM module. The main barrier preventing students from using the software was found to be unfamiliarity and many students expressed the need for support classes where help could be readily available. This result reflects the fact that the 70% of students who had prior software experience had been formally taught its use and 65% of these had been required to use it for homework. Correspondingly, those students that did have formal teaching on the CES EduPack software in other modules were most comfortable with its use and thus were more likely to have used it optionally within PAM and recommend it. Thus the main deterrent for using CES EduPack was not necessarily associated with the software itself, but more rather related to the prescriptive style of teaching that students had been exposed to during their pre-university schooling; they wanted to be shown how to use it, and a significant number of students (17%) even requested that the use of the software to be made compulsory, both of which would defy the goal of independent learning. These findings echo those from different researchers who have emphasised that IT skills (and the use of specific software packages) require carefully managed guidance and assistance in their acquisition otherwise there is a danger that the effects may be worse than not having the software at all. In trying to meet the requirements of students and remain within the limitations of the criteria set in introducing the software, tutorial style questions based on the software were devised in preparation for the 2008/9 course. Detailed instructions and answers have been given (including screen shots and ?step-by-step' instructions for the initial exercises) to provide the necessary support and guidance to those students who may require it. These have been introduced as ?homework' exercises throughout the course. Whilst not assessed the exercises have been strongly recommended, and discussed in the lectures. Questionnaires to assess the effectiveness of the approach will be used at the end of the course and the outcomes will be discussed in the seminar.