Postdoc Amir Shahmoradi won the UT Faculty Innovation Center's annual Faculty Innovation Grant for promising innovations in undergraduate education.
For his project "Enhancing Collaboration and Communication Skills of Undergraduate Students in the Computational Engineering Program at UT Austin" Shahmoradi proposed an active learning style transformation of a required computer programming course.
"As highlighted in reports by world-leaders in Computational Science and Engineering, a major student outcome is the ability to communicate across disciplines and collaborate in a team," says Shahmoradi. "Such skills are essential for the success of graduates in solving large-scale, real-world projects they will encounter in society, as part of their future job.
"Courses at UT Austin have been traditionally taught using a passive learning approach, where students have the passive role of receiving information from the instructor and internalizing it," says Shahmoradi. "This method of teaching, although successful in some specific domains is particularly ineffective in computational courses. It can lead to a course that is strongly oriented toward analytical problem-solving skills, with almost no focus on enhancing communication and collaboration skills of students."
Shahmoradi had already designed a successful 1-hour laboratory course prototype with the goal of increased communication and collaboration skills. The course offered all materials online, and students were required to create their own online repositories of homework, quizzes, exams, projects, and any other related activities. As the final exam, students were asked to work on a real-world research problem. To prove their communication and project-organization skills students developed their projects incrementally throughout the semester, and provided online documentation and presentation of their results for the instructor and teaching assistant. Student surveys throughout the laboratory course, offered further suggestions for refinements.
As a result, Shahmoradi's winning proposal used the effective elements of his prototype course suggested by students. He also added student-student collaborations on real-world scientific research problems to simulate the collaborative environment of academia or industry, as well as to familiarize students with common challenges that arise in collaborative scientific projects.
Using funds from the UT Faculty Innovation Center grant, materials and preparation of the course, COE 301 Introduction to Computer Programming, were completed during the summer. Shahmoradi is now teaching the course as part of the new Bachelor of Science degree program in Computational Engineering. The program is the first of its kind in the United States, and offered by the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.