Story-telling in Engineering, CTL Mini-grant Fall 2015

Instructor: Thais Alves, Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering

Summary: Professor Thais da C.L. Alves was inspired by a children’s story telling card game to create a class activity to help her engineering students meet two outcomes from the accreditation board ABET for engineering courses: to demonstrate an ability to formulate and solve problems and to communicate effectively in writing. She rolled out this innovation in two classes, one graduate level (CONE 651, Project Production Systems Design) and one undergraduate (CONE 301, Construction Ethics, Law, and Contracts). The innovation involved distributing to teams of students playing cards she created using course concepts, terms and illustrations. The teams then each 15 minutes to compose a paragraph that applied the terms on their cards to real-life situations. When time was up, the teams read their paragraphs aloud to the class and received feedback on their use of the terms. This activity succeeded in meeting her goals to promote student engagement and to improve their writing skills and knowledge of concepts and terms through application to various other contexts.

Final report

What I Did

The innovation went through three iterations over the Fall 2015 semester:

Phase 1: A first version of the innovation was tested in the graduate course with 15 students. They worked in groups of 3 and were given 4 cards (each card was ¼ of a letter-sized paper) with concepts related to Lean Production such as: output value, non-value added steps/activities, variability, cycle time, buffer, batch. Also, part of the deck of cards had verbs: simplify, increase, transport, push, and pull. Students were verbally instructed to create a paragraph using some of the terms in the cards they had been given. Teams were given 15 minutes to discuss the terms and organize their paragraphs. Once the time was up, each team read their paragraph to the entire class and received feedback about their use of the terms. During this time of the discussion, students got more familiar with the concepts and ask questions about examples using the terms. The activity took about one hour to be completed.

Students were asked to fill out an anonymous Google Forms survey to give feedback to the instructor about the exercise. A total of 11 students filled out the survey (out of 23), and they had to express their level of agreement with statements related to the desired learning outcomes, the usefulness of the exercise to analyze real situations, the level of engagement promoted by the exercise, and the instructions provided by the instructor. Agreement or strong agreement with most statements was high (80%+) but student comments suggested the need to improve the instructions, including providing them in writing.

Phase 2: A second version of the innovation was tested in the undergraduate course and 20 students participated in the activity. They were asked to work in pairs and were given 4 cards (each card was ¼ of a letter-sized paper). Each pair received:

  • One card with one type of construction delivery method: design-bid-build, design-build, integrated project delivery, construction management at risk, or construction management.
  • Two cards with words or terms to be paired with the types of delivery methods. Examples of these were: owner, compliance to laws and codes, single point of responsibility, architect, independent contractor, design coordination, subcontractor payment, subcontractor coordination.
  • One card with either word: advantage or disadvantage.

This time around all students were given written instructions. They had to indicate: the terms they had been assigned and write down their paragraph on the form provided. An example was also provided in the form to help students understand what was expected from them. The activity took about one class period of one hours and fifteen minutes to be completed. Once the activity was over, students were requested to post their paragraphs on Blackboard. A Discussion Board was created so that students could post their answers, and they were visible for all in class to see. Students were not required to make comments on the answers but were encouraged to review the postings. The instructor provided feedback about the answers and students were given a chance to re-write their entries if something was wrong.

Students were again asked to fill out an anonymous Google Forms survey to give feedback to the instructor about the exercise. The questions were similar to the ones on the first phase, but wording was slightly modified to reflect the terms discussed in the undergraduate class. Only 7 students filled out the survey, with similarly high levels of agreement with most statements.

Phase 3: The third and final activity of the Fall 2015 semester using this activity was carried out in CONE 301 with a new deck of cards containing additional terms that had been discussed close to the end of the semester. The activity was held on December 1, 2015, the week before finals, and at this point the students had seen pretty much the entire vocabulary related to the topics discussed in class. An additional component was added to the activity. Students worked on teams of three or four, and received a case study related to a court case pertaining to the construction industry. Each court case had a number of terms discussed in class that were explicitly mentioned within the case, as well as issues related to terms that could be used to explain the case or its outcomes. The students had to use the deck of cards with 25 terms to explain the case and its outcomes in a short paragraph. The activity took about one class period of one hour and fifteen minutes to be completed. Students also had to post their answers on Blackboard, and the instructor provided feedback about the answers. Students were not surveyed to evaluate this version of the activity.




How It Went

Student feedback overwhelmingly agreed that this activity is helpful in the classroom setting to achieve the ABET student learning outcomes and their ability to analyze real life situations. The limitation of this source of evaluation is that it was based solely on students’ perceptions of the activity. Additionally, the number of responses was not ideal. In the graduate course CONE 651, eleven out of 23 students replied to the survey, whereas only seven out of 23 students responded to the undergraduate survey.

The use of previous ABET scores from the same course over the past six years did not show an improvement in the scores of the learning outcomes evaluated that could have benefitted from this activity. In fact, the student outcomes have remained stable for the past six years, and during the Fall 2015 it was no different. However, the instructor perceived an improvement in the students’ writing and reasoning abilities reflected in other questions of the final exam, where some of the aforementioned outcomes are tested alongside group projects, but there was no previous data to compare this perception as far as the final exams are concerned.

What I Learned

The original rubric proposed for evaluation, which is used to grade papers and exams in the course, was not appropriate to grade the short paragraphs required from this activity.

  • Action: A new rubric will need to be developed for future rounds of this activity.

During the presentation to the Civil, Construction, and Environmental (CCEE) department, in a department meeting on 4/7/16, a couple faculty suggested that every student in class should be required to write their own paragraph to assure that all students are going through the activity the same way.

  • Action: In the future, every time this activity is developed in class, every student will be required to develop their own paragraph, post on Blackboard, and potentially get engaged in a discussion and/or grading of other students’ entries.

Students value more realistic or visual scenarios that help them anchor the terms and concepts in real life examples. The use of the court cases generated a very engaging discussion as the students questioned the outcomes of the cases and the legal and professional bases on which the cases were grounded.

  • Action: Additional cases and documents will be used in CONE 301 to help students make the link of the terms discussed in class with actual documents, contracts, and situations.
  • Action: A number of simple sketches illustrating concepts have been developed by the instructor using an iPad to be tested in CONE 651 during the Fall 2016. The drawings will be used to create a visual representation of the concepts for
    students in CONE 651.
  • Action: Use cases related to the Ethics portion of CONE 301 alongside terms related to professional duties and responsibilities of engineers.

For the undergraduate course, up to three extra credit points were added to the participating students’ midterm (activity using v2) and final exam (activity using v3).

  • Action: Include this activity in the syllabi for the courses that will use it and assign it a portion of the student’s grade. Students should view this activity as an integral part of their courses.