Creating a Better Engineer

Concept Warehouse targets education gaps often hidden by ‘expert’s blind spot’

Photo of Milo Koretsky in classroom, using Concept Warehouse computer software.
Milo Koretsky, professor of chemical engineering, surveys the classroom with a Concept Warehouse question.

Teach a student a formula, and help her solve a problem. Teach a student a concept, and help her create solutions.

Engineering education research at Oregon State University aimed at improving the way students learn core concepts has received continued funding from the National Science Foundation, expected to total around $2 million over four years.

The grant, awarded in August 2018, will support ongoing development and expansion of the Concept Warehouse, a web-based instructional tool that currently enables faculty within the discipline of chemical engineering to better provide their students concept-based instruction. Specifically, the grant will extend the scope of the Concept Warehouse into the discipline of mechanical engineering.

“One thing we do really well as engineering faculty is teach students the procedures to solve problems,” said Milo Koretsky, professor of chemical engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “But they often don’t tie the procedures to the foundational concepts that they’re built on.”

First launched in 2010 in collaboration with the University of Colorado, the Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Kentucky, the Concept Warehouse was conceived as a “cyber-enabled infrastructure” that could be used throughout the core chemical engineering curriculum. The goal was to create a community of learning focused on concept-based instruction.

Today, that community encompasses more than 1,000 faculty at institutions across the United States and around the world. Nearly 3,000 concept-based questions have been created, and a  curated selection has been sorted into a number of topical “concept inventories” that participating faculty can browse using a web-based interface. (“Sort of like shopping on Amazon,” Koretsky said.) Over 25,000 students have used the Concept Warehouse in the classroom, collectively answering more than 1 million questions.

Concept-based instruction aims to address the gaps between what students understand and what their instructors think they understand. It’s a well-documented problem in engineering education, one that has been observed and written about for decades. There’s even a name for it: the expert’s blind spot.

Photo of students working to answer questions using laptops and mobile apps.
Students use web browsers or a mobile app to respond to questions in class.

“As a faculty member, when I give a procedural problem, I see the connection to the concept. So, if my students can do the problem, I believe they’ve learned the concept,” Koretsky said. “And it turns out that, a big part of the time, students can just follow a pattern in doing the problem.”

The Concept Warehouse doesn’t seek to eliminate traditional procedural problem-solving exercises, Koretsky says. Rather it augments and supplements them with questions that specifically target students’ understanding of the core concepts involved.

“It’s not that teaching procedural problem-solving is a bad thing,” Koretsky said. “But we’ve found that if you do that alone, certain types of learning that you may think are happening, namely concept-based learning, might not actually be going on.”

Tom Ekstedt, an IT specialist at Oregon State whose work supports the Concept Warehouse and related research, likens the project to taking an engineer’s perspective to the problem of engineering education itself: How do you create a better engineer?

“If you take a systems-level view, you can see engineering education as a process,” Ekstedt said. “You have students coming into the system with a variety of different backgrounds and skill sets. They spend four or five years here, and they come out as engineering graduates. If you want to improve the quality of the end product, you need to look at ways to refine the process and, ideally, to be able to measure the specific qualities you’re looking for.”

One of the ways the Concept Warehouse breaks free from rote procedural learning is by simply taking numbers out of the equation, challenging students to explain core concepts in their own words. A basic question might ask students to consider gas flowing through an open valve and ask them what happens to the temperature of the gas as it comes out.

“In that example, the students can’t just identify the type of problem and solve for x to get the right answer,” Koretsky said. “They have to apply foundational concepts of enthalpy and energy balances in open systems to reason through it.”

The idea, Koretsky says, is to have students explicitly engage in types of activities where they relate to core concepts — from simple questions like the gas-valve example to more detailed, inquiry-based activities, like interactive virtual labs where students might spend a full 50 minutes on a single concept.

“What we’re doing is developing ways to build conceptual understanding,” Koretsky said. “To enable students to not just be able to solve problems very similar to the ones they’ve seen, but to enable those problem-solving skills to be adaptable to different types of contexts, like real engineers.”

Students interact with Concept Warehouse questions in the classroom through a mobile phone app or a web browser. Instructors receive real-time feedback, showing them how students employ different strategies in approaching the questions, where they had difficulty, and which concepts might need additional reinforcement. Students can let instructors know where they’re having trouble, or ask questions without fear of embarrassment.

Close-up of smartphone showing Concept Warehouse app.
With the Concept Warehouse, smartphones become powerful tools for communication in the classroom.

Koretsky says this two-way communication provides invaluable data for instructors.

“If I were to just put a problem up on the board and ask for volunteers, I would probably see the same four or five hands go up every time,” Koretsky said. “You end up with a self-selected sample that is not very representative. When students respond individually through the app, I am hearing from all of them, and I am able to see at a glance what’s working and what isn’t.”

The current project, which runs through August 2022, involves collaboration with other institutions, including Allan Hancock College, a two-year community college in California, and University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. Other partners include Bucknell University and California Polytechnic State University.

By broadening the types of learning environments where the Concept Warehouse is developed and tested, Koretsky says it will be better suited to serve diverse learning populations.

“Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach based on what works here, at an R1 [very high research activity] land-grant university in the Pacific Northwest, we want to be smarter about adapting approaches that are cognizant of the very different issues with cultures and populations that are different,” Koretsky said.

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