book and coffee
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Kenny G. Martin, a senior instructor in Oregon State University’s School of Civil and Construction Engineering, has figured out how to breathe new life into a required course that is often monotonous and predictable: statics. It is a subject he is passionate about, and he works hard to inspire his students, showing genuine excitement toward the course material and the engineering profession as a whole. Civil Engineering asked him how he does it.

Briefly describe ENGR 211 - Statics. What are the learning goals for this course?

ENGR 211 is the first of a three-part series devoted to the study of mechanics, and it is required for all engineering majors. The progression looks like this:

  • ENGR 211 - Statics (the study of objects that are mostly at rest, or at least not changing speed).
  • ENGR 212 - Dynamics (now the objects are moving and accelerating).
  • ENGR 213 - Strength of Materials (now we consider how objects flex, bend, twist, and generally change shape when loaded).

Unlike some universities where each engineering discipline has its own version of these classes, at OSU all engineering majors are blended together. That makes for a diverse learning environment as well as potentially high enrollment numbers. We don’t compete in size with the likes of biology, chemistry, math, physics, et cetera, but statics is definitely one of the larger classes within the engineering program. I only bring this up because it is one of the characteristics of delivering the course — managing teaching assistants, students, labs, et cetera, with a high volume.

As for the learning objectives, think of this course as ‘physics meets engineering.’ We take the fundamental math concepts and blend them with physics to teach students how to evaluate typical structures and systems — trusses, beams, bridges, you name it. We also teach students how to present their work in a professional manner. We emphasize ‘neat, professional, and organized’ with their work, as if they were submitting to their boss or to a client in the real world. Essentially, students learn to think critically and develop problem-solving skills, apply everything to common engineering situations, and then thoughtfully explain their solution process.

It’s exciting for everyone because it’s the first time students feel like they’re real engineers. It’s like that exhilaration you feel when the training wheels come off and you’re riding for the first time. It is truly a rite of passage of sorts. In the industry, we wouldn’t hire interns unless this class was under their belts. Similarly, nearly all professional engineers, no matter their discipline, can share with you their own personal ‘statics experience.’

Why is this course innovative? 
Because of its nature as a required, core-curriculum class, it could easily succumb to feeling dull, repetitive, or boring. I wanted to avoid a lackluster, go-through-the-motions vibe some students lament over. I wanted the opposite. This class was a game changer for me when I was in school, and I want to share that feeling with my students. I come at them with passion and energy, and my goal is to have impact. That’s how I show up for them. And I weave that passion into the course materials I prepare for my students.

One example is the videos I have created. There are between 40 and 50 high-quality videos, each approximately 10 minutes in length. Some explain important concepts visually, while others show example problems. Some demonstrate the connection to real-world scenarios. And I’m not referring to canned recordings of a lecture. I reserved time in a studio and worked with a production team from our own Ecampus (online education portal) to create these videos. They have become a valued resource for students who take the course. 

Based on requests from other professors and students, we created a dedicated webpage that contains all the videos, and the link is available to all students and faculty members at OSU. Other courses in the sequence refer back to the videos, so students have them as a refresher, and they can also be used as a preparation tool when they study for the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination.

Moving forward, I envision working with OSU to offer these videos via the Open Educational Resources Unit. This would allow more folks to access these educational resources — students, faculty, and even members of industry.

How do you ensure students grasp the concepts of statics?
One touch point is called recitation, which is a fancy way of saying lab or studio. It’s a way to complement and reinforce the learning concepts. It can take many forms, but I have chosen to create weekly assignments that peel back the layers on whatever we covered that week in class. In the in-person delivery of the course, students work in small groups to collaboratively proceed through the assignment. In this setting, they also have access to a TA (teaching assistant) who floats around the room answering questions as needed.

The idea is to steer them in the right direction without giving away the answers. I like to think of it as a safe learning environment where it’s OK to mess up. Students are graded for their submissions, but the hope is that they should get everything right if they use their resources properly. It’s a little harder to replicate the group collaboration in the Ecampus version, so those students work through the assignment individually rather than in a group, but they still have access to discussion boards, me, and the TAs. And the student-to-student interaction in that section comes afterwards when they perform peer evaluations on each other’s work.

Maintaining a positive and supportive learning environment online can be a challenge. How do you accomplish that?
You know, this hasn’t really been an issue for me. I’m not sure if it’s the tone I set from the get-go, but students show up in a positive way for this class. I’m not afraid to be vulnerable in front of my students, and I try to offer as much empathy as I can. Perhaps because of that they offer their respect in return.

What sparked your interest in statics?
Filis T. Kokkinos, Ph.D. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Infrastructure Engineering at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens, in Greece. He was my statics professor when I was 19 years old at Texas A&M University. His command of the topic and delivery of the material inspired me, and it definitely lit a fire within that is still aflame today. I know it sounds nerdy to say this, but I genuinely loved statics. I didn’t mind doing the homework, and I enjoyed going to class. Perhaps like many teenagers and early 20-somethings, that was a foreign feeling to me. At that time in my life I didn’t particularly enjoy any lectures or even the folks giving them. Everything felt stale, canned, rote. Kokkinos changed that. And at any given moment in my own teaching career, that’s what I’m trying to replicate for my students.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned recently Kokkinos was ranked in the top 1 percent of engineering faculty at Texas A&M. The same year I took his class he received the award for Outstanding Contribution to the Undergraduate Program.

What are some of the novel teaching methods you have implemented in this course? 
First are the helpful videos I mentioned above, including access to those videos after a student completes the course. This is noteworthy because I feel we should vertically integrate concepts as students move through our program. Too many times I see students and instructors who think of course material as a one-term or one-semester package that gets delivered and then stashed away for storage upon completion. I feel differently. Students should take these concepts with them and have access to tap into them as needed whenever they want. I wanted to ensure this could happen.

Also, by making the videos available to all faculty members at OSU, my goal was to offer some transparency into my teaching methods. Because this class is a fundamental course and subsequent courses build from it, I want instructors of those courses to know what I taught and how I taught it. Often, students go from one class to the next and they discover one instructor does things completely differently than their predecessor. Students get discouraged because they think they have to learn everything again from scratch. I think they should receive a cohesive message that shows how to synthesize concepts throughout their coursework. By offering my videos to other instructors, my hope is we can get on the same page and build from each other, vertically, not laterally.

Another teaching method are the low-stakes quizzes offered each week. These are used so that students can gauge their understanding of the material. They are available throughout the term, which gives students the ability to practice at various times over specific content throughout the course. I also created helpful text responses to accompany correct and incorrect answers. Upon completion of each item, additional answers and resources are released, allowing students to build their confidence and understanding of the concepts.

Additionally, I have a ‘So What?’ component to every lecture. I feel students should feel authorized and empowered to raise their hands and say, ‘So what?’ In these segments, I tie everything we just talked about back to specific real-world examples. I’m fortunate to have 10 years of industry experience to draw from. I think it legitimizes the material I’m asking students to consume.

Another approach that makes this course innovative is giving students a choice when it comes to proctored exams. They can opt for an outside service like Proctorio, or they can join a Zoom session. The former sometimes feels foreign to some students, which is why many (more than 85 percent) opt for the Zoom sessions, which are managed by me and my team (no outsiders). Not many professors I’ve spoken to are offering this type of accommodation with proctoring. It’s a big deal to students, and they are very appreciative to have a choice in the matter. 

I also created a detailed FAQ (frequently asked questions) page that provides explanations on grading, policies, assignment formats and submissions, and other aspects of the course. Think of it as an interactive syllabus, without the legal tone a typical syllabus has. Furthermore, I give them clear and defined deadlines for all assignments. That may sound trivial, but some professors are ambiguous with expectations and deadlines. Students dislike that. They want to know what’s expected of them and when it’s due. 

Is there one section of the course that is a student favorite? 
It’s funny, I teach lots of different things, but trusses always bubble to the top as a favorite with students. Perhaps it’s because we see them everywhere or because trusses look complicated at first but really aren’t that mysterious once students learn the fundamentals. I don’t know why exactly, but they’re consistently a hit.

Did you have to go through any special training when switching from in-person to online? 
I had several years of teaching experience when I started developing the online material, and I’m extremely grateful I did. But even with that experience to draw from, I was required to take part in a multiweek training course offered by Ecampus, which was exceptional. I really can’t say enough good things about our Ecampus program here. I learned so many outstanding pedagogies in those seminars, and I have brought them back into my in-person courses as well. As a whole, I am a much better instructor because of this training and experience.

You redesigned ENGR 211. Would the changes to the course have been made regardless of COVID-19?
Yes. One of the requirements within the OSU Ecampus program is that all Ecampus courses must undergo a comprehensive redevelopment every few years. This redevelopment keeps the material fresh, and it also gives instructors a chance to incorporate ideas that maybe we’ve been mulling over but haven’t had time to officially implement. The redevelopment requirement is clever and brilliant. Many of the best practices and novel teaching methods I described earlier were born out of my redevelopment efforts. Again, regardless of an instructor’s background or experience, Ecampus requires another multiweek training seminar at the time of redevelopment, and as before, I learned so much from going through that.

As for COVID-19, I was well poised to transition to remote delivery because of my involvement in the Ecampus program. I’d say the main focus of my efforts during the pandemic has been to offer more flexibility than usual and to be more empathetic with the students. 

Is there anything you would do differently next semester?
Using Zoom has opened my eyes to its potential for interactive online office hours and working with students one-on-one. I’ve been hosting short, 15-minute Zoom meetings with students to answer their questions, where normally we would conduct that conversation via email or they’d have to wait in the hall during office hours. It’s been so effective that I plan to incorporate Zoom into my normal routine, even when we return to in-person teaching. 

This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “Instructor Brings Statics to Life.”