A Non-traditional Pedagogy for New STEM Students
Teaching and Learning
After taking an objective look at what first-year students were experiencing during their introduction to imaging science experience (lectures, tests, homework, and labs), CIS faculty realized that it wasn't doing what they wanted it to do. Of course, they wanted students to get foundational knowledge in the discipline, but they also wanted them to get excited and motivated about their chosen field. Their solution was to replace the traditional model with a three-quarter sequence of courses built around an actual design project.
The project would provide students with an authentic, relevant, and engaging experience while beginning their enculturation into a community of practice that would lead them toward adopting the behaviors of professional scientists and engineers that they would need in the real world.
Teaching Strategies and Tools
CIS instructors designed a project-based, immersive model where students conceive and complete a design project, learning key skills along the way. There are no lectures, textbooks, quizzes, tests or finals—instead, students act as the kind of integrated multidisciplinary design team common in the workplace. Faculty and staff from CIS served as mentors to students throughout the year.
During the first course in the sequence, students receive a challenge: to design and build from scratch a fully functional imaging device for an external user. Students establish technical requirements, develop different conceptual approaches, and develop detailed plans for the next stage of the project. As a part of the planning process they identify any required skills that are missing from the team. An external evaluation panel assesses the teams’ work through a formal Preliminary Design Review at the end of the quarter.
The student design teams return the next quarter with all of the skill sets needed. They begin "trade-off studies" that allow them to assess the relative merits of the various conceptual approaches, develop predictive models, build and test components, define interfaces, and refine plans. Teams go through a second external evaluation at a Critical Design Review before proceeding to the final course. At the end of the course sequence, teams demonstrate their product, along with what they have learned, at RIT's community event, ImagineRIT
One of the main challenges when using this type of pedagogy is assessing student performance. The CIS faculty believe the best approach is to use inputs from a variety of sources. The students are assessed through classroom observations, Project Kaleidoscope rubrics, one-to-one meetings with the instructor, and peer evaluations.
CIS has recruited external sponsors to guide the design projects. For example, an anesthesiologist from the University at Rochester approached CIS with the idea for a system that would produce a 3D model of a patient's head to assess whether the patient might experience difficulty with intubation.
Another time, CIS worked with museum conservators to come up with a device to create a new class of interactive digital images.
"These connections with the world outside of RIT are essential to the success of this project... it makes what the students are doing relevant and real for them... They realize this is something that's important to somebody and keeps they motivated to do a good job."
Experience and Results
Some freshmen challenged with designing a real project so early in their college career react with disbelief and skepticism that they'll be able to accomplish the task. But by end of the year, as they demonstrate a working device for their sponsors, they feel they've really accomplished something special. The experience is one that stays with them throughout their time at RIT.
Student feedback to the program has been positive:
"Not only did I learn more in this class than I did in any others, but I was always more willing to learn, to seek out help, to try and solve issues myself, to give my opinion, etc."
"This class brought me confidence in who I can be and what I can do with my knowledge. My life has been altered for the better and I look forward to all of the opportunities that lay ahead of me because of this experience. THANK YOU SO MUCH!"
Joe and the other instructors were amazed that eight of the 17 students stayed on campus during the summer to continue research on the design projects. Four of the students had the opportunity to take their design to the Boston Public Library where they spent several days actually imaging some of the library's rarest holdings.
"It was amazing to us how given this one project, students were able to find a host of other applications and were able to connect with funding agencies and other places where they got the support needed to pursue their interests...this is something that we had never seen at the freshman level before...it was really amazing to us, and rewarding for them, and it was just more than we could have hoped for out of this particular class." Joe Pow