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.