Podcast Project Inspires Engineering Students to Think Big

December 13, 2006
Dec. 13, 2006 -- For their final project in a second-year engineering course in statics, students were given a novel assignment: produce a six-minute podcast discussing a major, real-world engineering project and its impact. The result surprised even the professor, Ed Berger.

Not that Berger doubted students might be more engaged by creating a podcast than writing a paper. What was most satisfying was that the exercise achieved his goal of getting the students engaged in big-picture engineering questions. As student Ryan Kelly put it: “The podcasting assigment helped me to see the world as an engineer, not just as a student studying engineering.” That comment had to be music to Berger’s ears.

The big-picture thinking Berger hoped to elicit from his students usually occurs only during the final year of an engineering curriculum, if at all — after years of laboring on equations and problem sets, much like medical students who have traditionally taken years of classes before attending their first patient. Just as medical schools are now incorporating patient care into the curriculum starting in the first year, Berger wants his students to be engaged by the biggest questions of engineering, starting early in their curriculum — and he turned to podcasting for a solution.

Four-member student teams produced podcasts that discussed projects such as the Hoover dam, sustainable building practices encouraged by the LEED standard, the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. The podcasts also addressed how such projects impacted (or would impact) the economy, the environment, tourism or the local community.

After spending an hour learning Apple’s GarageBand software, one student said she felt “liberated” to express herself creatively, and the podcast project was widely described by the students as “much more fun,” “interesting” and “creative” than writing a paper on the same topic.

Part of Berger’s reasoning for the assignment was that “things are always getting in the way of kids saying what they want to.” Podcasts, he thought, would let students use the spoken word, pictures and diagrams (use of video footage was prohibited, because working with it is much more time-intensive.) And, unlike a traditional group presentation in class, students didn’t have to suppress public speaking anxieties, since they could re-record the narration until they got it just right.

One class member, Cassie Jordan, said that conveying her thoughts in the podcast was easier than in a paper, because of the advantages of the spoken word over the written word, especially being able to use intonation and humor.

Berger, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, concluded that the podcasts allowed students to express their passion and knowledge of engineering far beyond what was evident from the traditional assessments on weekly problem sets and tests.
The podcast results, on the whole, were better composed than Berger would have expected from a similar paper assignment, based on past experience. Ironically, all of the best podcasts had fully written scripts, as opposed to ad-libbing an outline, and there are several reasons why producing a podcast was a good writing exercise, even though the students thought of it as a break from writing.

Reflecting on the similarities between the podcast and a final paper, Jordan acknowledged that her group’s script had a thesis statement and that they found things they needed to revise as they would listen to the recording of the narration — just as English teachers since sixth grade have been counseling students to proofread their writing by reading it aloud.

Statics is the first engineering course that the many structural disciplines take, and it’s profoundly important that students really understand the material, Berger said. Along with the barrage of equations, diagrams and problem sets, students need opportunities to see how exciting real-world engineering projects can be. Producing podcasts proved to be an easily accessible way to do so. One student called the project inspirational, a term, Berger noted, not often used in engineering class evaluations. Next semester Berger will teach the same students their next statics class, and he’s already planning what their podcast assignment will be.