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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Naval grant aids new teaching methods

Andy Klein, assistant professor of electrical engineering, was awarded a $447,000 grant to research new forms of student-based learning with Western students over the next three years.

The Office of Naval Research is a federal agency that specializes in providing science for the United States Navy and Marine Corps through colleges and organizations. The agency showed interest in Klein’s proposal of education research in engineering.

Half of the grant is motivated by the idea of Makerspaces, places where communities of learners build and construct through their own motivation and can do a lot without any formal training, Klein said.

“I’ve seen these very motivated people in there and thought, ‘How can I instill that very same motivation into my students?’” Klein said.

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The other half of the grant is based off the design of cooperative board games and taking that idea of cooperation to solve a set problem into the classroom, Klein said.

Klein is going to use the idea to create exercises that will require the class to solve a common goal or compete against other groups, he said.

Group-based learning is becoming more common in the Science Math and Technology Education program, Jeff Newcomer said, department chair of engineering and design.

“He’s trying to show or experiment with how he can get students to really grasp complex, upper level issues,” Newcomer said.

The experimental classes will be Klein’s Electrical Engineering 360, 361 and 460.

Klein came to Western a year ago, attracted to the university’s openness to research along with teaching, he said.

He attended a teaching workshop when he arrived that was hosted by the SMATE department that gave him interactive ideas to adopt into his class, Klein said.
“This is kind of an extension and expansion of those ideas,” Klein said.

Western really encourages risk-taking and helps to encourage a student-centered learning that will improve their overall learning, electrical engineering director Todd Morton said.

The first year is to get the baseline for the research, and then the next two years will include the hands-on tinkering and game elements during class, Klein said.

“You generally don’t start to get a class right until the third time you teach it, even if it’s a course you’ve taught before,” Newcomer said.

Newcomer thinks the funding will last long enough to allow refinement of the idea, he said.

“I think the main interest is improving learning because it acknowledges that people learn differently. Hopefully it improves motivation,” Klein said.
Morton also encourages new teaching strategies.

“We allow [professors] to take that risk, because sometimes it doesn’t work, they might get poor student evaluation for a quarter, but we understand that they are trying to do something new and unique,” Morton said.

The experiments will be implemented winter quarter of this year and will change classes, with majority of lectures to be video lectures at home and the homework during class, Klein said.

The department is lab oriented and hopefully the research will improve the department even more, Morton said.

If the experiments are successful at the end of the three year grant, Klein hopes to apply for a multi-institutional grant and try out the methods on more schools, he said.

“Our vision is that it could certainly be applied in other departments,” Klein said. “It certainly holds value in probably all fields of STEM.”

Klein had applied to many grants before and felt lucky to be accepted by the first place he applied to, he said.

“The fund rate in most programs is around 10 percent, and so it’s really hard to get funding, especially from federal agencies. As a faculty member , this can be very demoralizing,” Klein said.

The most exciting to Newcomer isn’t the grant — it’s the potential spreading of the model, he said.

Andy Klein, assistant professor in the electrical engineering department, secured a Naval grant to bring more learning tools into the classroom for his students.  // Photo by Daisey James
Andy Klein, assistant professor in the electrical engineering department, secured a Naval grant to bring more learning tools into the classroom for his students. // Photo by Daisey James

“I think that’s really where the grant is going to have impact — when you create a model that can be applied to other areas,” Newcomer said.

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