New Technology Helps Engineers Expand Their Reach and Their Right Brain Skills

July 1, 2008 — During the spring semester, Brian Park wanted to do something a little different with the group project he assigned to his "Civil Engineering 444: Traffic Operations" class.

He was inspired by a workshop in which U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science colleague Ed Berger had faculty members from all disciplines exploring the educational possibilities associated with interactive Web-based technologies such as podcasting. So rather than assigning the usual research paper, the assistant professor of civil engineering randomly divided the class of 30 or so undergraduates into groups of four and asked them to create a seven-minute podcast on the topic of their choice related to sustainable transportation. 

"As with any group project, I wanted them to work together," Park said. "By introducing this technology, I hoped students would gain more interest and involvement in the project because they would be working with something cool."

Park had support from the U.Va. Robertson Media Center's Digital Media Lab staff, who taught students how to use the latest software to edit digital media, including still images and short video clips, to create what is known as an "enhanced video podcast." Then he raised the stakes a notch by having the groups compete against each other for bragging rights and the coveted prize of a pen embossed with the U.Va. logo.

Then-fourth-year civil engineering student Ryan Gilbert was a member of the group whose podcast on hydrogen-powered vehicles was selected by faculty members, staff, graduate students and classmates as the winning entry. "I think it was a good idea," he said. "It made the project a lot more fun and interesting. I'd much rather make a movie than write a paper or do a PowerPoint presentation."

Berger, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, uses podcasting in a variety of ways to make understanding the material he presents interactive and effective. He sees lots of educational value in this and other "Web 2.0" technologies — blogs, wikis and YouTube videos, for example — and recently received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the educational effectiveness of these digital media technologies.

In a recent interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Berger noted that his students learn more through the use of Web technologies. "They empower individuals to do things that they didn't used to be able to do," Berger said of these new teaching tools. "Not only do they enhance everyone's reach in terms of how many people they can touch with what they create, but the authoring tools are so powerful that now students can create and share resources with not all that much effort. I'm excited to get students working together and creating. We don't do that enough in engineering."

Gilbert agrees. He thinks it’s especially important for engineering students to develop skills with these new technologies. “I worked for an architecture firm, and they taught me all these trade secrets about doing good presentations,” he said. “The quality of their media really promotes the work they’re doing. Engineers are pretty good with computers anyway, so it’s a good idea to know how to use digital media in making presentations.”

Park is pleased with the success of this innovative assignment. “It was a fun project, and students enjoyed it,” he said. “It was easier to share the research with others in the class and I’m sure students will use this technology for other things.”

— By Linda Kobart