The value of case-based learning after 3 years in industry

Upon completing my master’s coursework in December of 2015, I accepted a job offer with Tetra Tech, a large consulting engineering firm, and started work the first week of January 2016. At Tetra Tech I was fortunate to be involved with a variety of projects (civil-site design and construction, stormwater program management, hydraulic and hydrologic modeling, environmental monitoring, etc.) and learned so much from each one. In September 2018, I left Tetra Tech and accepted a position with the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute where I worked on a project helping water and wastewater systems that served rural communities in the Appalachian regions of Kentucky. Again, there was a lot that I learned from this project and am very grateful for the opportunity to work with the great folks I met in eastern Kentucky. These learning experiences have shaped who I am as an individual, an engineer, and a graduate student with aspirations to work in higher education. After having gained this experience, I look back on my time in undergraduate/graduate school very differently.

As an undergraduate student, I was probably the most clueless kid in my class. I didn’t know what I liked or didn’t like to study, I didn’t understand the value and privilege of higher education, and I didn’t know why I was in the engineering program to begin with. Although it sounds bad, I think this is common today among young students. I gave a presentation last spring to freshman/sophomore engineering students at Virginia Tech and made the statement “I didn’t know why I was in engineering school, other than my parents said I would be good at it because I was good at math and science.” It was incredible the number of students that came up to me after class and said how much that resonated with them. I think part of the reason why this is such a problem is because young students generally have a lack of exposure to what work in their profession really looks like. This is one way in which case-based learning (CBL) can really add a lot of value. CBL gives students a glimpse into the real-world problems they might encounter and be asked to solve in the workplace. Early exposure to those kinds of problems/projects/case studies might help students find an area of study that suits their interests earlier in their college years.

Additionally, CBL offers a variety of other benefits. I think that CBL helps to solidify the concepts that students are supposed to learn in class. Students probably won’t memorize a list of hydraulic modeling algorithms that are shown on a PowerPoint slide and briefly explained; however, if the students get to apply those algorithms to a real-world water distribution system and see how different algorithms produce different results, then I think the students are more likely to retain the information. This example of CBL also would allow students to learn about practical issues related to water distribution systems, improve their abilities to use computer programs for hydraulic modeling purposes, and, if the project was set up in an engineer-client framework, the students would also learn practical skills in consulting such as interacting with the client and making a good presentation of recommended alternatives.

Overall, I am in favor of using CBL in the classroom because I feel like it helps to prepare students better than traditional teaching/learning methods in some instances. However, I feel like it is appropriate to point out a couple of potential shortcomings of CBL. First, it has been criticized by some that CBL takes away from time otherwise spent on important technical material.1 Logically, I think this must be true. Given a finite number of class periods in a given semester (i.e., finite time), if you choose to spend X amount of time on CBL, then by definition you are not going to be spending X amount of time on something else. However, if the teacher can blend the technical content with CBL in a harmonious way, then I think CBL should be implemented as much as is practical.

A second point of criticism – this one a personal criticism – is that there are many academicians who have not had professional work experience, making it much more difficult for them to use CBL that would prepare students for industry. One possible solution to this would be partnering with people who are actively working in industry to engage with the students on real-world problems. This would require the professor to be proactive in establishing those relationships with partners in industry prior to the semester. It would be more work for the professor but it would really benefit the students.




6 thoughts on “The value of case-based learning after 3 years in industry

  • October 13, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    I appreciate your perspective with experience in the industry on CBL. It is good to hear firsthand that CBL is valued from an industry preparedness point of view. I really like your suggestion about having teachers partner with industry members to create CBL opportunities for their students. This could help add real-world inspirations. This could also help the teacher spend less time trying to “invent the wheel” and more time teaching their students how the wheel works and where they can apply it.

  • October 13, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    Thank you Steven for pointing out the relation of CBL to the industry in your blog, and even to use it as a pre-approach for students in school in order to help in exploring the many possibilities of life inquiries. What I really want to reflect on is the idea of having a practical experience for academics, I agree that having industrial professors with work experience is essential for the academic factor, as I believe that PBL and CBL are already built-in ( not generalizing) yet a base of theoretical and technical background is essential which is important not to use those methods all the time. In the university I used to teach in, they recruit industrial professors ( non Ph.D. professionals with efficient work experience) to teach design courses only and some technical courses, yet the other theoretical courses were assigned to Ph.D. professors. The results of students’ graduation projects were astonishing compared to other universities; more realistic, applicable, and ground-based. I believe in mixing both qualifications in academia and hoping for better learning.

    • October 14, 2020 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you Kawthar for sharing your experiences of the industry relationship to PBL/CBL in Jordan. I am impressed, but not surprised how this approach so strongly impacted your students where “graduation projects were astonishing compared to other universities; more realistic, applicable, and ground-based.” Stephen, I am also a fan of this method and am glad that while you are, you also hold it up to a critical lens. I agree that there is a give and take with time management, and if done well, it is a non-issue. No doubt as you move forward designing good PBL/CBL projects you will have the tools to be mindful about how you frame and scaffold the experience for students.

  • October 13, 2020 at 10:06 pm

    Hi Steven,
    I think you have a really great perspective after coming from several years in the industry. I think engineering courses could greatly benefit from CBL when done correctly. I like what you send about “harmoniously blending” technical content into CBL – I think this is key. In engineering, I think this may result in CBL that is a little more “guided” by the instructor. This is especially the case when teaching a specialty class (i.e. hydraulics)…students would really struggle to learn fundamental concepts about this topic without some more structured teaching. However, if the teaching could be framed in a “bigger picture” kind of way, it might be the best of both worlds. Thanks for your post!

  • October 13, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Steven, your post allowed me to see case-based learning in a new light. As I was reading the material, I did not think about how case-based learning can do more than just teach and allow students to learn real world critical thinking skills. Your blog post brought to light the affect that it could have throughout one’s life, including my own. I find it fascinating how, at least in part, you feel molded as a person by your experiences with the learning and teaching style. It is a great point that not only can one learn real life skills, cooperation, problem solving, and critical thinking skills, but one can also take these skills with them throughout life. Your post allowed me to look back on some of my own experience and to understand how I, also, am molded as a person, scholar, and teaching by these same case-based learning and teaching styles. Really a great post–Thanks for your insight.

  • October 16, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Steven– thanks for your great post! As others have pointed out, the harmonious blending of technical content with case-based approaches in engineering is key. I do also want to mention that there are some new positions that are spreading more widely in engineering disciplines called professors of practice– you may have heard the term– but this role is designed to hire faculty members (I think mostly non-tenure track) who have years of experience in industry to fulfill the role you mentioned and provide better connections to the professional world. I do also really see a lot of value in professors partnering with industry members in the classroom and think that’s a really great idea!

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