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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Classroom: Engineered for Learning

Professor Eric Hansen meets with ENGS 31 students in the Couch Project Design Lab. Photograph by Douglas Fraser.

When Professor Eric Hansen began teaching electrical engineering at Thayer in the early 1980s, the tech world was regaling the debut of the personal computer and the microprocessors—developed by electrical engineers—that made them possible. Since then, Hansen says, he has “melted down and recast” ENGS 31: Digital Electronics every five years or so to keep pace with evolving technologies.

But until recently, his teaching methods remained relatively constant: in-class lecture, weekly lab, final exam, big design project. While this is a fairly standard approach, Hansen wasn’t getting the results he was hoping for. “It was pretty clear that 90 percent of the learning in the course was happening in the lab,” Hansen says, “And I was always unhappy that we couldn’t bring more building into the classroom.”

Then Hansen witnessed colleague Peter Robbie ’69 teach. “He treated his classroom like an art studio,” says Hansen. “I thought, why couldn’t I do that?”

So two years ago, Hansen experimented with reserving one class meeting each week for design exercises. Students gathered during x-hours at whiteboards in Thayer’s Couch Project Lab to work in groups of four. “The x-hour became a time where I could interact with students as they were solving problems,” Hansen explains.

But lab time and space were limited and components and materials, such silicon, were costly. As Professor Geoffrey Luke, who also began teaching the course, says, “We had to figure out how to build components in the regular classroom. And with 60 students, one instructor couldn’t give feedback to everyone.”

With support from the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), Hansen and Luke adopted EDA Playground software, which allows students to build in simulation rather than silicon, and worked with engineering Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor to restructure the course.

“We started by asking: what do we want students to get out of this class?” says Hansen. “Then we refined our learning objectives to emphasize the important parts, and looked at which content we could offload into videos.”

Hansen and Luke recorded a dozen or so videos each, and developed classroom exercises for students to apply the concepts from the videos. Luke taught the redesigned course in Spring 2017, and Hansen followed with a Summer Term offering. Learning Fellows, students who took the course previously, helped in class.

“It was tough at first developing relevant exercises that were at the right level,” says Luke. But, he says, he noticed that students’ final projects were better designed than in previous terms.

Luke points to Learning Fellows and the students as sources of in-the-moment feedback. “It’s a much shorter feedback loop than I’ve had previously,” he says.

“The whole flow of the class hour is different, and I’m trying to get that right,” Hansen says. “But leapfrogging the class [by teaching in consecutive terms with Luke] has allowed us to iterate much more quickly. It has been a real learning experience.”

(Condensed from a DCAL article)

—Elli Goudzwaard

Categories: The Great Hall, Classroom

Tags: curriculum, faculty, innovation, students

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