Reinventing the Classroom

Text by Susan Shullaw

Engineers are tinkers by nature. Hand them a gadget, a puzzle, or a problem, and they’ll take it apart, make adjustments, reassemble, and have it working better than ever.

Can the same process apply to the college classroom? Figuring out how students best learn in today’s high-tech, hyper-connected world is a puzzle confronting many college educators, particularly since the first massive open online courses (MOOCs) emerged in 2012.

That’s when Keri

might mean for the college and the UI as a whole. If every course can be taught cheaply and online to tens of thousands of students, is there even a need for a physical campus anymore? The hype about MOOCs has waned, but interest in new ways of teaching and learning remains high.

“This was a nationwide conversation and it gave Dean Scranton an opportunity to encourage more innovation in the classroom,” Hornbuckle says. “In 2013 we began a faculty luncheon lecture series on this topic. The dean gave the very first presentation and his message was clear. He wanted faculty to understand that classroom innovation shouldn’t be about reaching more students—it’s about using online resources and other technologies to enhance what we have to offer.”

Research has shown that students are better prepared and more engaged when they learn in environments that are interactive or provide a more personalized experience. Among the approaches incorporating these elements is the "flipped classroom."

In a typical lecture course, a teacher delivers course content during class time, and students complete projects and other homework assignments on their own, outside of class. In a “flipped” course, the content formerly conveyed during inclass lectures is delivered via web-based instructional video, podcast, or assigned readings, which students are expected to study prior to class. Then, class time is used for group problem-solving, with the faculty member on hand to provide guidance and answer questions on the spot.

Associate professor of biomedical engineering Sarah Vigmostad flipped her Statics class in 2012. “I made short podcasts of mini-lectures and problem samples for students, and they were expected to come to class ready to solve problems— not having mastered the material, but at least being familiar with it,” she explains. “During class, students would work in preassigned groups of three, so I could be sure each group had a mix of ability levels to encourage peer teaching and learning.”

Vigmostad reports that she found the flipped model “almost immediately validating,” in part because the problem-solving exercises quickly revealed students’ gaps in knowledge.

“It used to take until the first exam, weeks into the term, before students realized what they didn’t know, and they ask all these questions that should have been raised earlier,” Vigmostad says. “In the flipped class, I started getting those questions on the first day, which was great. It really changed the class dynamic, and got students off on the right foot right away. I feel like my students really enjoyed and benefitted from the flipped format.”

Class structure and content clearly make a difference, but setting is important, too. Vigmostad’s flipped Statics class was held in one of the university’s TILE classrooms. These learning spaces, designed to “transform, interact, learn, and engage,” are equipped with circular tables, laptops, flat screen monitors, multiple projectors, and whiteboards to encourage and support collaborative and engaged active learning among students and faculty.

Mark Andersland, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, also has experimented with the flipped concept and TILE classrooms. In his case, encouragement came both from within and outside the College of Engineering. Launch of the college’s classroom innovation speaker series in 2013 coincided with a university-wide initiative called the Large Lecture Transformation Project (LLT). Sponsored by the UI Provost and led by the UI’s Office of Teaching, Learning and Technology, the project sought to transform several large courses from traditional lecture-hall formats to hybrid or “blended” deliveries—part online, part in-person—supported by technology.

Andersland teaches what he acknowledges is a somewhat unpopular core course: Electrical Circuits. It’s challenging, it’s required of all undergraduates, and with an enrollment of up to 600 students each year, the course has always been delivered in the familiar lecture-hall format. When Andersland’s department chair suggested that Circuits might be a good candidate for the LLT project, Andersland was intrigued.

Circuits and Spaces

“I’d always lectured the way I’d been taught,” says Andersland, “but the class sessions I most enjoyed were exam reviews. Students would come in, I would ask them what concepts were troubling them, and then invite other students to offer their ideas. We were problem-solving together and it was a much more active learning environment, although I wouldn’t have described it that way at the time. I just knew it was more fun.”

With guidance from Jane Russell, an instructional design specialist in the UI Center for Teaching and leader of the LLT project, Andersland began to look for technological solutions that would make group problem-solving more meaningful. “I wanted to find a way for every student to take ownership of what he or she was learning, and not just applaud solutions offered by others. So, being an engineer, I started looking for alternatives.”

Andersland found, and adapted for real-time, classroom use, a web-based homework platform capable of delivering distinct versions of the same for-credit problems to each student’s laptop or smartphone, along with instantaneous answer feedback. This turned out to be essential to the flip’s ultimate success as it enabled students to simultaneously receive individualized feedback on their work, and it focused student discussions, not on their specific answers, which were all different, but on the successful approaches to arriving at these answers.

“Not surprisingly,” says Andersland, “the flipped course worked best in the interactive classroom, largely because students had room to spread out. In the auditorium setting, it was difficult for students to turn around in their seats and converse with their peers while juggling a laptop, notes and reference materials. And it was difficult for the teacher to easily move around the room and visit the student groups.” Self-reported student surveys showed that performance and engagement increased as the Circuits course moved from the standard large-lecture model, to the flipped model in an auditorium, to the flipped model in the interactive classroom.

“Coming to your class is like coming to a study group three times a week,” one survey respondent remarked. “That was meant in the most positive way,” Andersand says with a smile. “It was a great reminder that our focus should always be on learning and impoving."


Classroom innovation is a priority for the College of Engineering, the University of Iowa and, as it turns out, the U.S. military.

Pablo Carrica, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and faculty research engineer at IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering, and James Buchholz, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and associate faculty research
engineer at IIHR, recently received a three-year, $600,000 grant from U. S. Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, for “Engaging Undergraduates and High School Students in Naval Science & Technology.”

Leveraging IIHR’s established Naval Hydrodynamics research program and the IIHR Fluids Workshop, the Office of Naval Research grant will help establish an undergraduate program in naval hydrodynamics, provide an experiential learning environment where students will engage in problem-solving exercises with Navy lab engineers, and more.

Like other classroom innovations under way at the college, the grant-funded projects will promote interactive learning.

“We’ve designed our Fluids Workshop to be a collaborative laboratory community,” Buchholz cites as an example. “Posing open-ended problems gives students the opportunity to teach and learn from one another.”

While the Navy may be most interested in developing its future workforce, Buchholz is just as interested in cultivating a particular mindset. Educational programming that show students what they can do, he says, “helps build a culture of innovation and curiosity."