Dr. Russell Gorga Looks to Expand Problem Based Learning at NC State

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Dr. Russell Gorga, Associate Professor in the Department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry & Science (TECS) and member of NC State’s Academy of Outstanding Teachers, spent the spring semester of 2014 in Denmark on sabbatical researching teaching innovations and effectiveness in engineering, with a specific emphasis on Problem Based Learning (PBL).

In this article, Dr. Gorga explains what he learned and how he hopes to use this knowledge to advance students in TECS, the Wilson College of Textiles, and NC State University.

Written by: Dr. Russell Gorga, Associate Professor, TECS

I learned a tremendous amount during my sabbatical experience at Aalborg University, in Aalborg Denmark, during the spring 2014 semester.  When I arrived on a cold, rainy day in February, I did not have a research plan in place.  During my first several weeks, I met with my hosts, Prof. Anette Kolmos and Prof. Erik de Graaf, regularly to talk about ideas and come up with a plan.  Originally, my perspective was that I needed to develop a plan to implement a new teaching method or paradigm and assess the effectiveness of that method for the students’ learning.  I soon learned that the educational research being conducted here was unlike anything I had imagined.  A lot of the work focuses on how to integrate engineering curricula into different cultures and the intersection of social/psychological/demographic/economic factors and engineering education.

Determining my research question:
After spending close to two weeks reading and discussing learning behavior and talking to my hosts about different ideas, Erik finally turned to me and said, “well, what question is it that you’re interested in answering?”  It was the first time in my professional life that anyone had asked me that question!  I spend the next few days walking around thinking about what question I was really interested in answering.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience I had during my second week where I attended a seminar for first-year students and then followed the student teams back to their team rooms to talk with each of the groups.  Aalborg University is a problem-based learning (PBL) institution, where the students take three classes (related to their discipline) and have a team project experience that is related to the course work and their experience level each semester.  Each team has its own team room (conference room) for the entire semester equipped with white boards, internet access, and tables and chairs.)  I remember being struck by how mature and motivated the students were for second-semester freshmen.  They seemed to have an innate interest in the projects they were working on and a maturity that I was not used to observing in any US academic institution.  Subsequently, I learned that the students start university at an average age of 20 and their curricula is solely focused on their major courses (humanities and social sciences were covered in high school).  This is where I began to formulate my question.  Why do these students seem to be so motivated and driven? Is it because they started university at a later age and therefore made more mature decisions about their academic career choices?  Did they, therefore, make decisions based on innate interest in the discipline they’ve chosen?  These questions became the basis for what I was interested in answering!

Developing my research tools and testing:
I began to look into self-determination theory (SDT) and learned about the research done to determine whether someone is intrinsically (innately interested) or extrinsically (interested only because of external factors) motivated.  I then devised a set of interview questions to determine whether students exhibited interest in engineering as young children and if/how that carried throughout their schooling.  I also wanted to know if external factors in their lives (parent, teacher, advisor, friend, etc.) influenced them to pursue engineering as a major.  In addition, I adapted two surveys from SDT to look at extrinsic/extrinsic factors in their school work and their perceived competence in their school work.  What I found was that students who chose engineering were innately interested in the topic as younger children and chose their major due to innate (intrinsic) interest.  Further, I found that these students showed a high degree of intrinsic interest in their course work and that they had a positive attitude regarding their perceived competence (meaning they thought they were doing well in their courses and project).  Understanding the reasons behind these findings for this population at Aalborg University, raises another set of questions, but a lot points to the Danish culture.

Plans at NC State and my overarching goals:
I am going to administer the same interview and survey to second-semester students at NC State to compare and contrast the two student populations.  My hypothesis is that US students will be more driven by extrinsic motivators than the Danish students.  From my experience, US students take advice from parents and teachers and are encouraged to enter an engineering program because they’ve been identified as “being good at science and math”.  My main goal for this work is to help students identify their intrinsic interests before picking a degree program (especially an engineering program) to help them make more informed decisions about a degree path that is interesting for them.  In the long term, a student who is intrinsically motivated by the degree they’ve chosen will be more inclined to stay in their program of interest, which will improve retention rates for that program, college, and possibly the university as a whole.

Another goal I have for NC State is to further implement the PBL model into the engineering curricula.  Specifically, I learned that it is unrealistic to expect students to follow a traditional teaching curriculum and then throw them into a PBL-type environment in their senior year (the senior design course).  The senior design course is an open-ended problem based course where the students are given a problem definition and need to formulate a set of problem criteria/constraints and then set upon a plan to solve the problem and develop a proof-of-concept prototype.  This team-based, unstructured approach is daunting to the students who have (for the last three years) sat in a classroom or lab to learn new concepts and apply that knowledge in exams and lab activities.  The students have a hard time adapting to the lack of structure, the open-ended nature, and the team dynamics associated with the project.  If, however, we can better integrate the PBL approach beginning in the first year, students will not only learn this problem solving approach, but will learn to thrive in it.  And, that is the nature of the work place in the “real world”, which is, after all, what we’re training them to be successful in!

View Dr. Gorga’s Graduate Seminar