The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Baker and Schmidt Divide Students into Teams To Conquer the Work in Large Introductory Course

Erin Baker

Erin Baker

David Schmidt

David Schmidt

Professors Erin Baker and David Schmidt of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department adapted a variation on the theme of “divide and conquer” to make their introductory engineering course much more user-friendly for the 192 students taking the very large class in the fall of 2015. They used UMass Enhancement Funds to divide much of the coursework for “Engin 113 Introduction to Mechanical and Industrial Engineering” into a “team-based learning” (TBL) approach to make it much easier for their students to “conquer” their work. TBL is the use of learning teams to enhance student engagement and the quality of student learning.

“We have experienced several challenges in teaching this course, including class size, content, and format,” explained Baker and Schmidt in their proposal for the UMass Enhancement Funds. “Over the past six years, Engin 113 has grown from 130 students to 192 students. Because Engin 113 is the only engineering course taken by first-year MIE students in their first semester, we feel it is essential that students develop some type of personal connection to their peers and to at least one faculty member. The dramatically increased class size makes this difficult to accomplish.”

As Baker and Schmidt described their course in their proposal, “The goal of Engin 113 is to provide entering freshmen and transfer students with an introduction to current engineering problems and to some of the skills they will need to succeed in the College of Engineering and in their careers.”

Before they adopted team-based learning, the huge course was taught in one section by one faculty member. There were two large lectures each week, and the lecture topics included energy and energy technologies, engineering economics, communication, and team building. A number of guest speakers also addressed the class during the lecture meetings. There was one smaller class each week, with 48 students, which was run by a teaching assistant.

“While topics dealing with energy and the environment and with engineering economics are of interest to some students,” Baker and Schmidt explained in their proposal, “they may not be broadly appealing to a large portion of the class. As a first engineering course, it is essential that the course content resonate with students. Given our limited in-class time, we need to find ways to address broader topics. Finally, the current course format (in-class lectures and speakers, out of class project) is not as engaging as we would like it to be.”

As a consequence, Baker and Schmidt decided to change to a TBL format and specifically address each of these issues. To handle the problems with large class size and course content, they divided the students into two sections.

They explained that “by using the TBL format we will emphasize collaboration, communication, empathy, and teamwork, thus allowing the students to make closer connections to each other. The two sections will be team-taught by two faculty members, one from Industrial Engineering and one from Mechanical Engineering.”

The course was also divided into three parts. The first part of approximately three weeks set the stage for TBL: working on team building, communication, information literacy, and other group participation. The second part was taught by Professor Baker, an Industrial Engineering faculty member. This stage focused on engineering sustainability and included a project in which teams designed and evaluated projects related to the UMass Climate Action Plan. The third part was taught by Schmidt, a Mechanical Engineering faculty member, and focused on the mechanical design of a product.

In addition, to convert this class to a more engaging format, Baker and Schmidt identified and developed content that could be accessed by students online, outside of class time, to prepare for team-based learning in the classroom. This out-of-class learning included: reading popular press and research articles related to engineering topics; viewing lectures on key content needed for the class; and viewing guest lectures by faculty and alumni to give the freshmen a sense of the many fields of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

To encourage team building and provide motivation for a topic that not all students find engaging, Baker worked with a graduate student to develop a game in which the teams were asked to help design a fictionalized version of Gigafactory, a production facility for TESLA batteries. The students had to make decisions about how to balance the cost of production machinery against the per-unit cost of production. Once the team made their decisions, a visualization showed them if their overall profits were going up or down.

“The students were highly engaged and more interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of engineering economics,” explained Baker.

One basic assumption of TBL is that teamwork breeds more teamwork. “A distinct advantage of TBL is that it allows individuals with differing expertise to contribute in a manner which provides for synergies that would be impossible to generate when working alone,” the proposal noted. “We will develop team-based activities that leverage this characteristic of TBL by drawing on broad ranges of areas of experience and knowledge likely to be found among team members but not likely to be found in any one individual.”

For instance, Baker and Schmidt had an activity in which students estimated the cost of electricity produced by the new solar canopy covering the parking lot at the visitor’s center. This collaborative work requires some of the specific expertise needed by both Mechanical and Industrial Engineering students. 

But, the problem did not end there: The teams were asked to make a judgement based on their calculations. Was the solar canopy a good investment by UMass? Researchers have found that the process of making a judgment requires the input of all team members and leads to higher engagement and critical thinking. In this case, one team noted that the cost per ton of CO2 saved was lower than the estimated climate change damages from CO2, therefore they argued it was a good investment. Another team argued, however, that there were more cost-effective ways to install solar on campus. Finally, other teams argued that the location of the solar canopy sends a message to prospective students that UMass is serious about sustainability. (March 2016)