Comparison of lecture- and problem-based learning styles in an engineering laboratory

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Today's practicing engineers are required to use sophisticated sensing equipment and perform nondestructive testing (NDT). These technologies and skills, however, are infrequently incorporated at the undergraduate level, with a resulting gap between scholastic and real-world knowledge. Moreover, in traditional undergraduate laboratories, experiments are outlined in cookbook fashion, with step-by-step instructions. Students are not challenged to formulate different arguments, design experimental approaches, or critically interpret results. In response to this, the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Rhode Island made major changes to its undergraduate structural engineering laboratory course during the fall 2008 semester. The traditional course included solving textbook-type problems as well as using structural analysis software to analyze structures. The new, revised course now introduces NDT methods and sensor technologies using the problem-based learning (PBL) process. PBL uses open-ended, unstructured, multidisciplined problems set in real-world situations designed to promote learning through discovery. The two courses were offered simultaneously to evaluate which is more beneficial to students after graduation. Data were collected using pre- and postsurveys that probed students on their attitudes and expectations for college-level engineering laboratory courses and a rating scale of the importance of 12 learning goals. A multivariate analysis of variance was performed on the survey data using the Statistical Product and Service Solution software. It found that the PBL approach offered several benefits not provided through the traditional lecture-based learning style.

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Transportation Research Record