Engineering better student performance

Chemical engineering professor creates hands-on learning to convey complex processes

Since he’s a chemical engineering professor, it’s probably no surprise that Ed Gatzke has worked on engineering a method for improving the drop-fail-withdraw rate in a key course for freshman engineering majors. He’s also jury-rigged a free alternative to clicker-type response systems, but more on that later. 

The course, Engineering Modeling and Numerical Methods, is tough because students can’t use a cookie-cutter approach to problem solving. “It requires them to have working knowledge of things like trigonometry and be able to attack large word problems,” says Gatzke, who joined the College of Engineering and Computing faculty in 2001 and works with the freshman engineering community in Bates West. “It’s a class where you really have to be engaged, work on the homework and be prepared for the quizzes, and there are a lot of different topics.”  

Using a grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence, Gatzke exchanged the traditional lecture format for a flipped classroom model with students watching lectures online and using class time for quizzes and solving problems with the professor. He took things a step further with the online lectures, as well. 

“I provide the students with printed copies of the lecture notes with fill-in-the-blank components,” he says. “Students have thanked me for that, saying it keeps them engaged while they watch the lecture — it forces them to pay attention and it’s more active learning. They also like watching some of the lectures over and over if they’re having trouble with a concept.” 

Gatzke teaches another course, Chemical Process Dynamics and Control, that doesn’t produce many failures or withdrawals (the students who take it are mostly juniors and seniors and have mostly figured out how to succeed in their coursework) but was nonetheless producing a lot of frustration. 

“Basically, it’s a continuation of mathematical concepts they’ve learned in three previous calculus courses but applied to the real world,” he says. “It’s the first engineering course where they have to model things that change with time, so the dynamics are different and the mathematics are a little different. Some students really like it and some are a little frustrated with it.” 

The equations used in the class mimic a manufacturing environment, Gatzke says, and to that end, he’s introduced hands-on experiments into the teaching mix. 

“You’re actually using calculus and differential equations to solve real world problems, and it’s a little more important because if you don’t do it right, you can blow up your chemical plant,” he says. 

Fortunately, no one blows up the experiments but instead they get an opportunity to see how abstract mathematical calculations play out in real time before their eyes.  

“When they actually see the sensors and the valves moving, and they see numbers on the screen changing with time, it’s a lightbulb moment. It’s important when you go into a chemical plant to understand those concepts,” he says. 

Like a lot of professors, Gatzke has used i-Clicker devices to gather real-time feedback from students as he lectures. Students use the clickers to respond to questions about a concept; if most of them respond correctly, he moves on to the next topic. 

As prices for that technology have risen, Gatzke developed his own Google Docs spreadsheet that allows students to fill out a Google form to provide the same type of instant feedback. “It’s a homebrew solution to get the same information, and because it’s not mission critical for collecting grades but more for just feedback, it’s not the end of the world if it breaks — and it saves students some money.” 

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