REDISCOVERING THE MASTERS: Richard Felder, Engineer & Educator – Natasha Patrito Hannon

This is the first of what I hope will become a monthly feature highlighting the work of scholars who have made significant contributions to teaching & learning in higher education.

I begin with Richard M. Felder, emeritus professor of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University and, perhaps, the most prolific scholar of engineering education in the world.  Having carved out a successful research career modelling mixing and diffusion in chemical reactors, Felder turned his attention to teaching in the late 1980’s.

I had been teaching for about 15 years when I first became aware that something was wrong in my undergraduate classes…I would cover material thoroughly in my lectures, giving lots of examples and illustrations of the methods I was presenting, but when I asked questions about it the next day most of the students seemed not to have heard a word I said, and when I gave examinations many of them did terribly. I knew they were all intelligent…and I started to wonder what the problem was.

Felder’s search for answers led him to the literature of cognitive and educational psychology.  He began to experiment with active and cooperative learning, writing numerous papers about the impact of these strategies in the engineering context.  His latest work assesses the impact of learning objectives  and learning styles in science and engineering classrooms.

Felder’s papers are remarkably practical, full of concrete examples and insights.  He is an engineer and, thus, understands the culture of teaching in technical disciplines.   He develops and recommends teaching strategies with his engineering colleagues and students in mind.

We believe that involvement of students is critical for effective classroom learning; however, much of the basic content of engineering courses is not a matter of opinion.  Educational approaches that emphasize process exclusively to the detriment of content will not be considered (Felder, 2000).

Richard M. Felder

If you are a science or engineering educator interested in exploring practical, classroom-tested approaches to innovate your teaching and enhance student learning, consider reading any or all of the following.  Felder’s insights are well worth the time…

1.  Felder, R. M. (1987).  On creating creative engineers. Engineering Education, 77(4), 222–227.

My personal favourite! In this paper, Felder describes three unusual ‘exercises’ that can easily be incorporated into traditional quantitative problem sets to increase the creative problem-solving skills of students.  He includes ‘sample exercises’ used in both 3rd-year and graduate-level chemical engineering courses, discussing students’ reactions to these novel assessments and potential grading strategies.  Felder’s insights are easily extrapolated to other technical disciplines.

2.  Felder, R. M., Woods, D. R., Stice, J. E., and Rugarcia, A.  (2000).  The future of engineering education II.  Teaching methods that work.  Chemical Engineering Education, 34(1), 26-39.

Part of a series devoted to engineering education in the new millennium, this piece recommends seven teaching techniques that have demonstrated clear success in the engineering context.  Each broad recommendation is accompanied by concrete, classroom-ready suggestions as well as justifications based upon decades of educational research.

3.  Felder, R. M.  (2002). Designing tests to maximize learning.  Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering. Education & Practice, 128 (1), 1–3.

In this short piece, Felder addresses common shortcomings of traditional science and engineering examinations and provides straightforward advice to address them.  A timely read for those of us in the process of developing or retooling our upcoming finals!

Dance your PhD? Implications in the science classroom… – Natasha Patrito Hannon

What do you get when you mix graduate student researchers, music and Youtube?  A global competition so compelling it rivals the appeal of popular reality television contests like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’.  The Dance Your Ph.D. contest, created by molecular biologist, John Bohannon, and sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science asks contestants to interpret their Ph.D. theses in dance form, without the help of words or images.  Hard to imagine!  I often find it challenging to explain scientific concepts using words, accompanying powerpoint slides, and the chalkboard simultaneously.  What connection can there be between this slightly bizarre, but ever so intriguing contest (check out hilarious videos of the 2009 winning entries at ) and science classrooms here at Western?

I can guess what you’re thinking – ‘Cool idea, but there is no way I’m performing a contemporary dance routine to illustrate the intricacies of the Kreb Cycle’ – and while the Dance Your Ph.D. example is extreme, a number of faculty members are exploring the kinaesthetic domain as a mode of teaching science.  At the 2009 Canadian Society for Chemistry meeting, Pippa Lock, faculty member at McMaster University, described a new type of demonstration that she has integrated into her 1st year Chemistry course.  Guided by Dr. Lock, students in this course physically enact common chemical phenomena on a regular basis throughout the semester.  Each lecture, a group of students volunteer to be the ‘Chemistry Players’ and they use their bodies to illustrate abstract concepts like aromaticity, molecular structure and state functions.  Anecdotal evidence based on student feedback suggests that the students both enjoyed these demonstrations and also viewed them as valuable learning tools.  Dr. Lock described one particularly telling moment as she walked past a group of students studying for her final exam in a quiet corner of the Chemistry building.  Frustrated by trying to explain a concept in words, one of the students stood up and began re-enacting the demo from class saying, ‘Don’t you remember?  It looked like this….’  In the coming year, Dr. Lock will continue to collect data about the impact of these demos and other teaching interventions through a number of teaching-related research projects.

So, while you won’t find me doing the rumba in my 1st year Environmental Science course this coming semester, I will certainly continue to consider how physicality can play a part in communicating scientific content and will keep you posted about the types of demos that I develop.

Have you used a similar demonstration before with success?  Do you have any great ideas for a concept that could be communicated through movement?  If you do, please let us know!

References:  J. Bohannon (2008) Can Scientists Dance. Science, 319 p 905.