Aeronautics and Astronautics: 16.20 & 16.90

Moving from lectures to interactive class sessions while enabling remote student participation

The opportunity:

Two trends drive a growing interest for creating more flexibility in the Aero/Astro curriculum. First, undergraduate students can participate in an increasing number of valuable academic opportunities beyond the campus, but most required courses are for residential students only. Second, Aero/Astro faculty increasingly consider the use of “active learning” methods in class to be an effective pedagogical technique.

In recognition of these trends, Aero/Astro faculty hypothesized that “a learning model, emphasizing active student-instructor engagement, coupled with student preparation, can be effective for achieving subject learning objectives for students both on-campus and of-campus.”

The experiment:

In Spring 2012, two Aero/Astro courses (16.20: Structural Mechanics, and 16.90: Computational Methods for Aerospace Engineering) implemented several significant changes to the typical lecture-homework model. The experiment has just concluded and evaluation by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory is on-going.

Faculty oriented class activities around mini-lectures, focusing on topics that proved to be challenging to students, and collaborative sessions, in which students worked on problems or programming assignments together. Students were expected to review course notes before attending class. Students were also given the option of attending class remotely.

Areas of innovation:

Participating faculty from both courses felt that the experiments exceeded their expectations.

Participants agreed that increased interactivity made the class sessions more valuable learning experiences. Typical student comments noted that: “Every class is like office hours with the professor” and “The class knocked down barriers. If I don’t get it, I can ask”.

The use of embedded quizzes within the online pre-class material in 16.90 provided a dual benefit:

  • Faculty could tailor class interactions around the material where students’ results showed an inconsistent or incomplete understanding of key concepts.
  • Students appreciated immediate feedback on their grasp of the material, and came to class better prepared.

Class discussions were broadcast live via web-based videoconferencing enabling local and remote students to share the same class experience. Student remote participation was voluntary and typically 10% per class, with a different set of students choosing to remotely participate for each class.

Sustainability considerations:

These experiments were notable for their use of relatively simple and low cost technologies:

  • 16.90 used a project developed tool for embedding questions into online course material, then scoring and sharing the results.
  • Remote participation used web videoconferencing technology (MIT-supported WebEx or Adobe Connect) and a tablet PC or electronic whiteboard (Mimio) for note-sharing.

Future directions:

Given the success of this experiment, Aero/Astro is considering the following future options:

  • Expanding this model to more “professional area subjects” (junior and senior elective courses) in order to support off-campus opportunities.
  • Developing more embedded quizzes within pre-class material.
  • Exploring the MITx platform to provide a long-term supported infrastructure.
This project was supported by the MIT Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and was one of the experiments in course modularity conducted by the MIT Council on Education Technology in 2011-2012 with funding from the Class of ’60.
Written by Mark Brown

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