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Washington State University
The Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering

Denny Davis Receives Sahlin Award

Denny Davis receiving Sahlin Award
(l to r) Dean Candice Claiborn, Prof. Denny Davis, Pres. Elson Floyd, and Provost Warwick Bayly

Denny C. Davis, professor in the School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and director of the Engineering Education Research Center (EERC), earned the Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Leadership. Four WSU faculty members have been named recipients of the annual 2010–11 Sahlin awards. The awards were presented at WSU’s annual Showcase celebration of excellence on March 25, 2011.

Professor Davis is recognized as a leader in engineering education at the local, national and international levels because of educational innovations and scholarship he has catalyzed through the EERC. He has provided vital leadership for instructional innovations leading to a nationally recognized interdisciplinary engineering entrepreneurship senior projects experience at WSU.

Professor Denny Davis working with students in the Capstone Design class
Professor Denny Davis working with students in the Capstone Design class

Davis’ servant-leadership has had numerous impacts. He has mentored faculty locally and nationally to become successful in engineering education scholarship. His mentoring has yielded a diverse, well funded cadre of engineering education scholars at WSU and collaborators across the nation. He has traveled abroad as an expert in his field to introduce others to his innovations in engineering design education, and international scholars have visited WSU to personally explore the uniqueness of the programs developed by Davis.

He was a founding member of the President’s Teaching Academy, a group that was charged with helping to lead WSU’s educational process. With his contributions and leadership, the academy developed and implemented several programs and tools that have advanced WSU’s instructional mission.

Denny Davis
Professor Denny Davis

Voiland Researchers are National Leaders in Engineering Education for 2010

Denny Davis, Bernie Van Wie, and Richard Zollars
(l to r) Professors Denny Davis, Bernie Van Wie, and Richard Zollars

“We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”
– Barack Obama, 2011 State of the Union address

With government and industry leaders calling for innovation as a way to stay competitive in a global economy and for improved education, particularly, in engineering and sciences, a group of Washington State University researchers is taking a leading role in the field of engineering education.

Three faculty members in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering received approximately 10 percent of the $18 million awarded nationally by the National Science Foundation’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES) program, more research money in 2010 than any other academic department in the United States. The program provides research support for the improvement of curricula and teaching methods in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“If we are to meet the national call to be technology leaders in the 21st century, we need to be innovative in the way that we educate our students and bring the best education tools into our classrooms,” strong funding support speaks very well to the cutting-edge work we’re doing in this area.”

In 2005, WSU researchers from the College of Engineering and Architecture and the College of Education established the Engineering Education Research Center to facilitate research enabling innovation and effectiveness in engineering education. Led by Denny Davis, professor in the Voiland School, the research center has led and encouraged engineering education research that now is one of the larger research thrusts at WSU.

Voiland school researchers were also leaders in establishing the first-ever research experience program for junior high school and high school teachers in the United States. The SWEET (Summer at WSU Engineering Experiences for Teachers) program, which was initiated by three faculty from the Voiland School (Jim Petersen, Bill Thomson and Richard Zollars) and has subsequently been established at a national level, introduces teachers to engineering and helps them develop learning modules that they can bring back into their classrooms.

In 2010, three Voiland School researchers received support for the following engineering education NSF TUES funded projects:

  • Multi-Disciplinary Project-Based Paradigm that Uses Hands-on Desktop Learning Modules and Modern Learning Pedagogies. Led by Bernard Van Wie, professor in the Voiland School, this $600,000 project expands on an earlier project that developed a prototype desktop learning module (DLM). The DLM is a desktop apparatus with multiple, easily interchangeable cartridges that can be reconfigured to perform a variety of experiments. This apparatus is being used in classrooms for implementing better teaching practices and demonstrating basic concepts in fluid mechanics and heat transfer.
  • Appraisal System for Superior Engineering Education Evaluation-instrument Sharing and Scholarship (ASSESS). Led by Denny Davis, professor in the Voiland School, the purpose of this $600,000 project is to create a web-based library of proven engineering education evaluation instruments to help build evaluation capacity for the engineering education community.
  • Exploring Studio-Based Learning in Chemical Engineering Education. Led by Richard Zollars, professor in the Voiland School, this $600,000 project builds on a previously developed scaffolded software environment called ChemProV (Chemical Process Visualizer). ChemProV presents chemical engineering students with dynamically-generated feedback on the syntactic and semantic correctness of their evolving process flow diagrams and sets of equations, guiding them toward correct solutions.

In addition to these projects in engineering education, Shane Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, also received a $400,000 National Science Foundation CAREER grant for a four-year project to better understand how practicing civil engineers gain understanding of engineering concepts. He hopes to develop a model of engineering thinking about these concepts and to create improved curricular materials based on this research.

We are in the Business of Learning

Bernie Van Wie works with students using the Desktop Learning Module (DLM) developed by then PhD student, now Postdoctoral Research Associate, Paul Golter
Bernie Van Wie works with students using the Desktop Learning Module (DLM) developed by then PhD student, now Postdoctoral Research Associate, Paul Golter

Working to devise ways for engineering students to learn better, Baba Abdul, a PhD student in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical and Bioengineering, relates the basic premise of improving education to that of business—that we are here to serve the customer. “The student is the customer, and we’re in the business of educating,” he says.

Abdul is working with Bernard Van Wie, a professor in the Voiland School, in the area of engineering education. Van Wie’s team recently received a National Science Foundation grant to continue work on the development and use of a desktop learning module (DLM). The DLM, designed by PhD student Paul Golter, is a desktop apparatus with multiple, easily removable cartridges that can be reconfigured to perform experiments. Machinists from the WSU College of Engineering and Architecture Machine Shop were instrumental in helping design and construct the Desktop Learning Module.

Students using DLM device in class
Dissemination efforts took place recently when Prof. Van Wie and WSU PhD student Baba Abdul took the DLMs to Oklahoma University for implementation in a Christmas break Intersession transport course taught by OU’s Prof. Ed O’Rear. Abdul, who joined WSU’s PhD program as a result of Van Wie’s recent Fulbright exchange and NSF OISE supplement for work at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, points to a DLM cartridge with a team of students during an active learning exercise.

Van Wie has been working since the late 1990’s to improve engineering education and to close the gap between how students learn and the way that engineering has traditionally been taught. In particular, he led a team of researchers in developing a curriculum based on Cooperative, Hands-on, Active, Problem-based Learning (CHAPL).

Professional educators have known for years about the benefits of using such learning approaches, and for engineering, hands-on learning is particularly important, says Van Wie. The typical student interested in engineering already tends to be better at learning while doing and at absorbing visual rather than verbal information. While non-lecture techniques have been commonly accepted and used at the elementary school level, they have been slow to be accepted in college, especially in engineering and the hard sciences.

Abdul, who grew up and attended college in Nigeria, remembers suffering through engineering classes that were taught in a traditional format. Professors would come into the classroom, tell students that none of them would receive an A, and then begin lecturing. “They didn’t help us to build our knowledge,” says Abdul.

Many students decided they couldn’t do engineering, and out of his class of 50 students at one of Nigeria’s top universities, only 20 graduated.

Out of the effort to develop an active curriculum, Van Wie uses the DLM for hands-on activities. In classes with the DLM, students learn to match the math they are learning with what is actually happening physically. So, for instance, the DLM contains a heat exchanger. Students conduct experiments to understand the concept of heat transfer between fluids. Understanding the concept of cross-flow and parallel flow can be confusing, says Abdul, but with the DLM, the students can see the difference between the two concepts and then learn to understand the equations “rather than just ‘plugging and chugging,’ ” he says.

The researchers have tested students’ understanding of concepts as they participate in hands-on and project-based learning. From evaluations, the researchers have found students prefer the hands-on activities and the projects that depend on understanding built during those activities.

“They feel that they’re doing real engineering,” says Abdul, “and the group work that they do simulates what happens in an engineering firm.”

The researchers found that working on team-based projects allowed students to learn valuable evaluation skills. The students actually rated themselves more harshly than professors and industry advisors did.

“The learning that happens is a complex learning experience that is focused and authentic,” says Abdul.

In the research, Van Wie’s team has shown that students using DLMs have shown statistically significant improvements in critical thinking skills and understanding of engineering concepts.

With the new grant, the researchers will be expanding use of the DLMs from its initial testing in a chemical engineering transport phenomena class into a variety of engineering classrooms, including civil, mechanical, bio- and even electrical engineering. In chemical engineering, the researchers will be trying out the DLM in thermodynamics and in a senior unit operations laboratory.

The DLM is being further used and tested in classes at five different institutions, ranging from a two-year college, to private four-year universities and a research university. The researchers also hope to begin working with industry partners to produce a commercial product. Recently, over the 2010 Christmas break the researchers successfully implemented the DLMs within a University of Oklahoma intersession class with Prof. Ed O’Rear, a collaborator from Oklahoma’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department.