Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Global Online Course Producing More Engineers in Virginia and Germany

This fall, 48 college students from across Virginia and Germany are logging on to an interactive website that uses lessons from Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami to understand the global implications of engineering.

The students are taking part in “Engineering, Technology and Contemporary Issues,” a joint, online course offered by the University of Virginia and T.U. Dortmund University.

Stephanie Moore, director of engineering instructional design in U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Dominik May, an instructor at T.U. Dortmund’s Center for Higher Education, join their students twice a week via a live, online environment called Blackboard Collaborate. Teachers and students use headphones, mikes, cameras and keyboards to communicate with one another. Readings are provided online, so the course is practically paperless.

The students’ location is irrelevant, provided they have an Internet connection. “Last year we had students physically located in Lynchburg, Danville and Tidewater,” Moore said.

This year, others have joined from northern and southwest Virginia. May said the students in Germany “take the class remotely, some from home and some will sit somewhere at the university with their laptops.”

Over the course of the 16-week class, students study ethics in design and the characteristics of successful design. Readings include passages from Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson, as well as contemporary reporting from National Public Radio and the New York Times.

The course will culminate with a cross-cultural nuclear energy ethics exercise. Moore said the activity was inspired by the disaster in Japan, which killed nearly 16,000 people, left hundreds more missing and disabled the country’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant.

The disaster prompted self-reckoning around the world. Suddenly, countries were reexamining their dependence on nuclear energy; the debate was especially pronounced in Germany and the United States, two of the world’s biggest consumers of nuclear energy.

Moore said the disaster in Japan provides a perfect case study for the students to “talk about the relationship between engineering and technological systems and human and political systems. On top of that, the U.S. and Germany had very different responses, so it is a great way to explore cultural differences that influence technological development and policy.”

For the exercise, the students will be split into U.S. and German assemblies, but with a mix of students from Virginia and Germany in each group. Within each assembly, the students will be placed in stakeholder groups, including an activist group, a government group and an alternative energy group.

“Because their tendency is to look at these things as an engineering student, we want them to be able to see some of these broader, socio-political issues from other perspectives,” Moore said.

Once the stakeholder groups have presented their positions, each assembly will then have to work among the stakeholder groups to develop a joint recommendation to the commission on nuclear energy policy for each country.

This is the second year the course is being offered, and it has been expanded to two sessions because it was so popular last fall. Even so, German instructor May said the course in Germany “was overbooked by 300 percent.”

Different Schedules for Different Time Zones

In developing the online course, Moore and May had to be mindful of the different university calendars in the United States and Germany, as well as the six-hour time difference.

“They run on more like a quarter schedule and, of course, we run on a semester schedule,” Moore said. “This offset in the institutions’ schedules required careful sequencing of the topics to be covered, establishing when and at what point in the content we wanted the students to come together, and determining what preparation was necessary for any joint activities we wanted to undertake.

“For the U.Va. students, there is some content that is critical for them because of the overall curricular requirements that do not pertain to the T.U. Dortmund students,” she said. That content was covered during the first 6½ weeks of the course. “The T.U. Dortmund students had different needs in preparing for the course, so T.U.’s instructor offered a three-day primer to the course prior to the first day of classes that students had to attend in order to prepare.”

This primer covered T.U.-specific emphases as well as some of the same content and examples from the first several weeks for U.Va, so that once students joined in synchronous class sessions, they were all at the same point and ready for meaningful interactions.

An Outgrowth of an Innovative Engineering Program

“We had an impetus through the Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia program to put a section of STS (Science and Technology in Society) 1500 online, which is a first-year course that all of the first year incoming engineering students take,” said Moore, who came to U.Va in 2008 in part to support PRODUCED.

James Groves designed the program in partnership with the Virginia Community College System to make it easier for students to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering without leaving their communities.

He said global online courses are a natural outgrowth of PRODUCED. “Global course offerings, like Stephanie Moore’s STS 1500 course, underscore how distance learning initiatives such as PRODUCED can enhance the traditional on-Grounds student experience. Because of PRODUCED, both distance and on-Grounds students now have a greater opportunity to develop cross-cultural awareness.”

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