transformation: from teacher-centered to student-centered engineering education

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  • Transformation: From Teacher-Centered toStudent-Centered Engineering Education

    GEORGE D. CATALANODepartment of Civil and Mechanical EngineeringUnited States Military Academy

    KAREN CATALANOCenter for Enhanced PerformanceUnited States Military Academy


    We compare and contrast teacher-centered and student-centeredparadigms of engineering education. We identify the followingseven roles for teachers wishing to adopt a student-centered para-digm: 1) model thinking/processing skills, 2) identify studentscognitive development, 3) develop questions that facilitate explo-ration/growth, 4) introduce visual tools to aid establishing connec-tions, 5) provide group learning settings, 6) use analogies andmetaphors, and 7) provide a no-risk student feedback channelfor information. Several case studies for different subjects andfrom different institutions are presented. Our results indicate astudent-centered model is most effective when coupled with acad-emic depth and experience in the subject matter.


    At a recent federal services academies conference, Cross1 deliv-ered a keynote address which challenged the assembled audience ofinstructors to develop an environment in which students becomeactively engaged. Decades of research focused upon teaching andlearning strategies has documented the effectiveness of an activelearning model.

    Administrators at institutions of higher learning are challengingtheir respective faculties to incorporate this relatively new modelinto their classrooms. While some faculty have embraced activelearning with enthusiasm, others remain more cautious. Engineer-ing education efforts both in design and in the engineering scienceshave been reported.2-5

    We seek to add texture to the movement towards active learn-ing, though opting for a slightly different terminology. In a stu-dent-centered approach to education, the student is at the centerof attention while in the more traditional or teacher-centeredmodel, the teacher is the focus. Active learning is more likely tooccur in the student-centered model while passive learning is morelikely to result in a teacher-centered model. Shifting the center ofattention of classroom activities from the teacher to the studentmetaphorically seems to us to be a significant paradigm shift in ed-ucation. Whether or not such a shift is revolutionary, recalling the

    historical origin of that word from the late Middle Ages, perhapsdepends on the stubborn resistance that a teacher may encounter inattempting to make such a change.6

    In the present work, we shall compare and contrast a student-centered approach to education to a teacher-centered approach. Weshall provide and discuss the following list of specific roles for teach-ers who wish to explore a transformation of their own classrooms:

    model thinking/processing skills identify students cognitive development develop questions that facilitate exploration/growth introduce visual tools to aid establishing connections provide group learning settings use analogies and metaphors provide a no-risk student feedback channel for information. Our particular transformation has taken place in engineering de-

    sign courses and engineering science courses taught at both LouisianaState University (LSU) and the United States Military Academy(USMA). We have attempted to assess the effectiveness of our trans-formation at both institutions and make some comparisons as well.


    According to Halperin,7 most activities today in a vast majorityof classrooms continue to reflect the older teacher-centered modelof education wherein students sit quietly, passively receiving wordsof wisdom being professed by the lone instructor in front of theclass. Bowers and Flinders8 describe a variation of the teacher-cen-tered model, teacher as classroom manager, in which the learningprocess is likened to industrial production, within which studentsbecome products, behaviors are expressions of exit skills, com-petencies, and outcomes. Implicit in this model that dates to theIndustrial Revolution9 are the following assumptions:

    any and all educational processes are culturally neutral, linearand rational

    language serves as a non-filtering conduit for the transmis-sion of information

    the learning process is heavily dependent upon the pro-nouncement and the enforcement of rules.

    Note that little is required or expected from the student until thevery end or final quality control inspection. In this model, the stu-dent simply rides the assembly line of learning, quietly and dutifullyaccepting all inputs as does a skeletal frame on an automobile manu-facturing plants assembly line. A modern day, high technology ver-sion of the same model of education has been described by Capra.10

    According to cognitive psychologists and educators, instructionis most effective when students are encouraged and even expectedto become actively involved in their own learning, thereby shiftingthe focus from what the teacher does to what the students do.

    January 1999 Journal of Engineering Education 59

  • King11 asserts that key to the learning process is what the teacheractually asks the students to do with the subject matter that is beingstudied. Open-ended interactions between teacher and studentsand student groups nurture the students natural curiosity.

    Many concepts may not be subject to precise definitions but maybe more richly described through the use of both examples andanalogies.12 Cooper et al.13 sought to promote student activitythrough the use of cooperative learning experiences including peertutoring, student-faculty research projects, short term buzzgroups, and learning communities.

    In engineering education, extensive work on active learning hasbeen reported by Felder14 and Smith.15 During the review process forthis work, additional works by Felder were identified as referencedin his homepage ( Felder14

    has identified the following six principles for good teaching: write comprehensive instructional objectives model strategies and skills for your students maximize experiential learning and minimize lecturing use team-based learning extensively do not make speed a factor on tests positively reinforce successful performance. Houshmand et al.16 developed a total quality management ap-

    proach in which administrators, faculty, and students work togeth-er to develop a methodology for improving the actual learning thattakes place in the classroom. Others have incorporated hands-onexperiences ranging from the use of multi-media17 to the entry intocollegiate design competitions.18


    From our review of the literature and from our experiences inundergraduate education, we suggest the following seven roles for aprofessor who wishes to explore a transformation from teacher-centered to student-centered engineering education.

    A. Model Thinking and Processing SkillsOne of the most important actions a teacher can take is to think

    out loud or externally process. A student-centered teacher maymodel brainstorming or problem solving. Students cannot read ourminds nor do they have any idea about our struggles as learners un-less we choose to share this information with them. Rather than asoliloquy, students are better served by frequent and revealingstreams of consciousness with allowances for repeated interac-tions between the teacher and the students. Haddock19 eloquentlydescribes such sharing as being a nurturing professor. We offer amore colloquial and anthropomorphic metaphor, teacher as bor-der-collie, shepherding students along a path yet keeping a dis-tance, constantly in motion yet never at the center of attention, evervigilant yet never dominant.

    Example: Fluid Flow Exiting a Large Reservoir through a Small OrificeStudent-Centered Professors Verbalized Inner Dialog: Which

    conservation laws are at work here? Why should I use the conserva-tion of energy? Why shouldnt I use Navier-Stokes? Is Mach num-ber important? Is Reynolds number important? Should I considerthe flow laminar or turbulent? Viscous or inviscid? Compressible orincompressible? 1-D, 2-D, or 3-D?

    B. Know the Actual and the Desired Cognitive Levels of Activities andof Students

    Two models of thinking that we find useful both from ateachers perspective and for generating discussion with our stu-dents are Blooms taxonomy20 and Guilfords structure of the intel-lect.21 In Blooms model, thinking proceeds from the lowest level,rote memorization, to the highest levels, synthesis and evaluation.Guilfords model, as described by Aschner and Gallagher,22 dividesthinking into memorization or simple recall, convergent thinkingwhich requires the use of data to arrive at a response, and divergentthinking which calls for the generation of alternatives and evalua-tion which requires judgments and decisions to be made. Our stan-dard practice in developing quizzes, assignments, design projectsand tests is to identify the required thinking level and type usingboth Blooms and Guilfords models. More than simply for our use,we routinely engage students in identifying the modes of thinkingrequired in the different activities and possible reasons for difficul-ties they may have had.

    The following describes levels of thinking adapted from refer-ence 20.

    Level 1: RecognizingLevel 2: MemorizingLevel 3: TranslatingLevel 4: Making connectionsLevel 5: Solving problemsLevel 6: Breaking down barriersLevel 7: Fitting pieces togetherLevel 8: Drawing conclusionsLevel 9: Evaluating pros and cons

    Example: Importance of Reynolds numberIncreasing Levels of Think-ing:

    Recognize Re as the Reynolds number. Calculate Re for a given flow through a circular pipe. Calculate the friction losses


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