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I still remember my early days as a freshman, when I started my journey towards pursuing civil engineering education. I was thinking of a career in which I will apply what I will learn in the classroom. Within a few days, inadvertently, I started to observe my professors and their teaching philosophies and way of delivering lectures. I started to assess their teaching approaches and methods, and I thought deeply about which methods enhanced my learning. I developed a fascination for teaching during my first year of undergraduate studies and by continuing to explore throughout my undergraduate and graduate student life, I have garnered some effective teaching techniques that I would like to apply as a faculty member, should I get the opportunity to do so.
After obtaining my bachelor’s degree, I had the opportunity to teach undergraduate students in Bangladesh as a lecturer for more than a year. During that time, I taught students different aspects of civil engineering which includes engineering geology, open channel flow, design of prestressed concrete structures and design of foundations. I also conducted laboratory courses on open channel flow, pavement materials testing. I trained students on how to model, analyze and design structures on software like ETABS and SAP2000. I also taught students the basics of C++ programming. Later, as a graduate student first at the University of British Columbia and currently at the University of Alberta, I have mentored freshman engineering students through their introductory engineering mechanics courses.
All the years I spent observing my professors, combined with the experience I gained during my early career as a lecturer, and still learning as a teaching assistant while I pursue Ph.D. degree, yields that, to be a great teacher, I will have to strive for my best performance in regard to: delivering organized and structured lectures, detailing my expectations for the students, be equitable when evaluating student performances, be clear in expressing my educational goals and finally, be a mentor that inspires students.
My objective in all the courses I will teach on structural engineering is that each student develops a picture of the behavior of a structure that they are trying to design at the fundamental level and relates that picture to the mathematical expressions by which we study, analyze, explain, predict structural behavior and finally design and construct. I believe that it is imperative to deliver properly organized lectures that thoroughly present the complexities of most structural engineering concepts. Thus, my teaching will be built around my choice of the most effective methods of teaching the various structural engineering concepts covered in my courses to the diverse range of students in my classes.
One of my favorite professors during my undergraduate study used to solve structural analysis problems on the board to minute details and explained them to the class. In modern days when most teachers rely on PowerPoint presentations showing slides after slides; I believe, chalk on a blackboard is still one of the most effective teaching strategies. I find that analogies made to common experiences in day to day life are also quite helpful. For example, when explaining the behavior of a simple beam under load, I will ask students to imagine what happens to a foam mattress when they lie on them. I also believe that laboratory or classroom demonstrations on scaled structural models or prototypes are a good way to illustrate important concepts since they allow students to see the physical reality and consequences of the mathematical and design equations used to describe, explain, and make predictions about the behavior of a structure. Some topics are more effectively presented using computer graphics and animations. When discussing how to visualize and interpret, the deformation of a beam under load and the stresses it carries; the use of finite element software demonstrations are quite helpful, as are three-dimensional models that students can physically manipulate themselves.
Finally, structural engineering (in fact all engineering discipline) is fundamentally a form of applied science problem-based discipline that requires students to learn how to use the concepts to solve problems. Thus, a simple but valuable teaching instrument is allowing class time for students to work on problems related to the material just presented. This allows them an opportunity to apply what they have just learned and provided me with immediate feedback as to how successful the presentation was. Based on the feedback for the students, I can make decisions as to whether or not the class is ready to move on to a new topic.
In the laboratory, students must understand the concepts underlying the experiments. Too often, students perform laboratory manipulations and collect data which they can ‘number crunch’ with little or no understanding of the principles illustrated by the experiment. It was not until I had the chance to install strain gauges, and LVDTs and operate the Universal Testing Machine first-hand in graduate school that I truly understand how instrumentation worked in collecting data and the relation of that data to the beam bending theories and equations. At that point of time, I made myself realize that if I ever conduct a laboratory course in structural analysis and design, it would be necessary to have students work with the internal operation of the instruments rather than just viewing them as ‘black boxes”.
My belief is if the students develop an understanding of how to instrument and obtain data by themselves rather than relying on given data by someone else, this will prepare students for a career after the university to better interpret the validity of the data. The analogy I would refer is that someone can tell you how a car engine works, and you can understand the principles, but until you have to take one apart and rebuilt it, your knowledge of how the engine works will probably remain incomplete.
Therefore, I would design and arrange laboratory experiments where the focus is the concept being experimentally studied and not merely the collection of a large amount of data. I also expect laboratory reports detailing the students’ understanding of what the lab was about. After completing the experiments, writing the report, and revising it based on my suggestions, students should demonstrate a clear understanding of the connection between their laboratory analysis, and the fundamental concepts those analysis reveal.
Thus, while my mode of teaching will be enhanced with techniques specifically selected for each different topic taught – a selection based on my observations of my previous and current professors and modified by my teaching experience and my thoughts on teaching. Regardless of which methods I utilize, I feel that my class sessions must be highly organized. I must anticipate and address potential misunderstandings, and I must constantly check with my students to ensure that they understand the materials.
My experience, both as a student and as a lecturer, suggests that students who are not sure about the purpose of the course and its expectations often get confused and frustrated and tend to resist learning. I strive to clarify, both in my syllabus and in what I say, that I have high expectations for my students. I want them to master the material so that when they take exams, they are confident they will do well. This was the standard set by my undergraduate and graduate professors, and I have directly adopted it from them.
This standard requires students to know not only the specific details of the topic I have covered but also how those details connect to the broader structural concepts they have studied. In a nutshell, I expect them to see the bigger picture. For them, to obtain this mastery, I will strongly encourage the students and make sure they realize that it will be important to ask questions and that I expect them to do so. I also expect and encourage them to take advantage of my office hours or to make appointments with me. I faithfully respond to e-mails on the day I receive them and also place a comment box at the back of the room each day so students can submit questions anonymously. I respond to any comments, questions, or suggestions in the next class session. In doing these things, I make it clear that I expect them to put the same effort into being a student that I put into being an effective teacher.
Since formal examinations are the main mode of student evaluation, I will explain the purpose of each exam and clarify their content by distributing study guides outlining the specific concepts the test will cover. I also would recommend specific problems from the referred textbooks and provide a copy of the previous year’s exam so students can gauge the level of difficulty of the exam. In the laboratory, students receive a description of my expectations and standards of the contents of laboratory reports. Examples of previous students’ work that I would consider as a benchmark will be made available for the current students. I expect laboratory reports to be an opportunity for the students to improve their writing skills, and I reinforce this by offering opportunities for resubmission after students talk to me about their original drafts.
I would include another form of evaluation at the end of each course, which will involve presentations by the students in groups on a project related to the course. I expect that, while completing the project, rather than just solving problems in the classroom and pass an exam, the students will understand first-hand the purpose of that course and its practical applications. At the same time, it will give the students the opportunity to develop the mentality to work in a group. Overall, my philosophy with regards to student evaluation is that I have to set high expectation, but at the same time I have to be patient and continue to be a source of encouragement and mentorship to all the students regardless of their performances.
I believe that the level of student performance is generally governed by the level of expectations. Many times, I have talked with my fellow graduates who say that they did not like a particular course because it was difficult at the time, but that, in retrospect, they realize the value of that course. I had shared that same thought process for some of the difficult courses I studied. So, if that is the response to my courses, I will be happy. Often students do not immediately reap the benefits or see the merit of our efforts. Therefore, I am content to receive students’ comments about the level of difficulty of the course as long as I also continue to receive favorable feedback from former students regarding the worth of my course as long as I know my expectations are clear and reasonable, my examinations are fair, and that I have given my best to guide them in their efforts to learn.
It is also important that my students know my goals for their education. They need to understand what I expect they get out of each lecture I deliver to them, and what I hope they get out of their overall education. In each interaction, inside or outside the classroom, I hope to expose the students to something they have not thought about before. I also want my students to see the course I am teaching in the broader context of their education. I will try to encourage my students to pursue a broad education that demands they bring different perspectives to a particular issue. For example, when I teach about designing and constructing a bridge, I ask the students to also understand and reflect on the social and economic benefits and ramifications of constructing the bridge. I feel, having a broader outlook will help students become great engineers. At the same time, I try to provide a clear model of the merits of such an education by having discussions with my students about topics outside the direct scope of structural engineering.
In conclusion, my meticulous observations of the teaching styles, methods, and philosophies that I experienced throughout my undergraduate and graduate education provide me with some effective teaching techniques. As I pursue the challenges of becoming a faculty member, I will demand from myself that my lectures are organized and carefully presented, my expectations of students are set fair, and I convey the educational goals and purposes for them and inspire them in the interest of maximizing their educations.
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