Freshman Engineering Courses align with the critical pedagogical approach

EngE 1215 and 1216 are introductory engineering courses, having innovatively designed curriculum structure that aims to introduce students to the engineering profession. This curriculum structure aligns with almost all the principles of teaching and learning emphasized by Freire. Here I will discuss about these courses and how it engages students to learn critically. Hope the conversations about this approach will help disseminate the idea that can be incorporated in various other engineering courses.

Along with the various learning objectives of both these courses, specifically, instructors in 1215 actively engages students to a systematic engineering problem solving process, while instructors (including me) in 1216 help students to critically navigate through an engineering design process over a semester long project. For both the problem solving process and the engineering design process, students work in a project based learning (PBL) environment solving real-life engineering problems, to which they can connect and that can spark their interest (for example: Sustainable Energy Sources, Water Quality and Quantity effect on Watersheds, Drones, Prosthesis Design etc.). Students here also have the authority to select and define their problem/project under a certain scope. According to research, PBL is an inductive pedagogical approach that helps students to actively, critically and co-operatively engage in the engineering tasks assisting them in developing their engineering technical competency as well as professional skills. Instructors in these courses are trained (through departmental trainings) to act as facilitators (not being authoritarian): scaffolding students through the process, guiding them with probing questions and assisting students in developing metacognitive skills.

Moreover, there are also several other research based components in the curriculum that align with the idea of being “Dialogic” in Critical Pedagogy. Hands-on or critical thinking in-class activities are integrated throughout the curriculum providing instructors to interact with students and helping them in receiving formative feedback, along with the summative feedback after the midterm and final exams. Researchers suggest, these feedback helps in modifying student understands of certain concepts and clears their misunderstanding. Next, team-work is an integral part of this curriculum that forces students to work in an ambience similar to a professional engineering project team. Here students learn to work and learn co-operatively while solving a challenging engineering problem. This assists a student in developing communication skills and team-work skills. Again, throughout these courses students are encouraged to support their arguments with research work going on in the engineering field, exposing them to know and learn about the globally connected engineering workspace. Finally, ethics is tied into the curriculum to encourage students to work by resolving ethical dilemmas and to help them develop ethical reasoning skills that directs them to design/produce ethically viable engineering solutions for the society and specific environment (an idea presented by Freire).

On the other hand, teaching experience in this department assists me and supports me to develop skills for designing a project based classroom and for effectively facilitating students. GTA training programs and weekly meeting are conducted in this department to help instructors and GTAs prepare for the class and reflect on our teaching. We, as instructors are always provided with readings/resources that explain research-based content (for example: metacognition, PBL, product archaeology, Belbin team roles, etc.), helping us to implement them in the classroom. Moreover, strategies to handle issues in classroom (for example: professionalism, student’s less involvement with activities, problem with students who are distracted, etc.) are also discussed for maintaining proper classroom climate. Overall, this department through these courses enriches freshman students with an effective learning experience as well as enhances a teacher’s experience in a wide variety of research based practices of the 21st century.

Do I practice inclusive pedagogy?

The questions that sparked in my mind after hearing this topic “Inclusive pedagogy”, was: “Can I say, I practice inclusive pedagogy?”. Yes, I obey and tell my students to obey the Virginia Tech Principles of Community, but is that it? What more I can do to create an ambience in my class that it can be termed inclusive pedagogy? I do make groups in my class in a certain way (discussed later*), will you term that as an inclusive pedagogy? To be clear with the topic, I went thorough few of the readings for this week. The article, “From safe spaces to brave spaces”, though discussed in a context unfamiliar to me, still I think the authors’ elaboration with the case study clearly reflects the meaning of a safe space and how it can changed to a brave space. The discussion on the ground rules seemed much effective, helping me understand how I can better enforce the spirit of inclusiveness in my classroom. The ground rules stated were as follows: Agree to disagree, Don’t take things personally, Challenge by choice, Respect, No attack.

Implementing the ground rules in my classroom: In my introductory engineering classroom students are divided into groups to work on their project. The ground rules can be implemented and can be very useful in this context. After reading the article, I think, I should not only state Virginia Tech Principles of Community but on the same day conduct a good discussion on the ground rules, where I can elaborate on each of these rules and students can reflect from their experience. This discussion is as important as ethics discussion in class, since it will always help students to work and communicate in a diverse population, at the same time help the classroom to be more inclusive in nature. Students usually make team contracts where they write rules that they can follow when there is any type of conflict or scheduling clashes or rules for meetings, etc. Here students can also include these five ground rules, which should assist them in their communication with their varied team members.

*An attempt I make on creating a safe space: Students in my class usually fill out a survey with information on their technical background, which help me to make their project groups. Each group will have students having diverse technical competency. Another factor is that, in these groups of five to six members, I usually try to keep at-least two international students and keep gender balance, so that no one feels a loner in a team. I try not to make a group of one girl and 5 boys or vice versa. Sometimes, after announcing the teams in the class, when I see I have kept a girl/boy in a team where the other gender is dominant (being not able to interpret the gender from one’s name), I ask that person personally taking him/her to a side, if they feel un/comfortable working in that group. I do not want my action to jeopardize someone’s comfortability throughout a semester, and affect their creativity and work. For many students this has not been an issue but I found two people, who felt happy after changing their groups.

Do you think my way of making groups is an act of inclusive pedagogy? Do you think the idea I presented in the para 2 will work?