At the 2018 American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference, I published a paper about an innovative assignment that I created to help students connect theories from class to real-life applications. The full paper can be accessed from the ASEE website.
Control systems courses are often highly theoretical and focused on mathematical derivations. Some students express difficulty connecting the theories to practice due to this emphasis. By the time a student reaches their senior year of undergraduate studies in the United States, they have inevitably encountered a control system in their daily lives (e.g. kitchen appliance, automobile, house HVAC system) or in an internship or co-op job. Yet, many students do not readily recognize these connections either. In previous semesters, students have said it was difficult for them to understand how to apply control systems topics in their field.
Based on this feedback, I considered course improvements to address this deficiency. Looking closer at the feedback, I identified two possible causes for learning difficulties: lack of connections to prior knowledge and lack of motivation for the topic. According to Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010), sufficient and accurate connections to prior knowledge can support learning. Therefore, helping students accurately identify interactions with course topics in everyday life should aid learning. Additionally, based on the expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation, it follows that a student will likely be less motivated to learn a topic that they cannot identify as being useful in achieving a future goal (Ambrose et al., 2010). Therefore, it is important to show how engineers apply course topics to designs and projects.
I elected to add a new assignment and a short presentation to the course. The learning objective of the assignment is for each student to investigate one real-world application of a concept in the course. To achieve this objective, students write a one-page summary describing how their real-world application applied to a course topic. Then, to leverage the diverse experiences of students in the course, each student shares their application with everyone in a short TED-style talk on the last day of class. Overall, this quiz has been successful in my course. An unanticipated benefit of these new activities is that I also have a wider selection of practical control system applications to share in the course in a subsequent semester.
In this paper, I will describe the assignment and presentation in more detail, share the breadth of examples I have received in the first four semesters that I have taught the course, and informal feedback I have received about the course and assignment from students and other faculty members.
Reference: Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.
I also presented this topic in the Principles of Effective Teaching speaker series at Kettering University.
Reck, R. M. (2018, June), Applications Monday: Students Bring Real-Life Control System Experiences into the Classroom Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Salt Lake City, Utah. https://peer.asee.org/29810