The following article appears in the journal JOM,
50 (5) (1998), pp. 22-23. The paper is a companion to the May 1998 JOM-e, which features three papers on the use of multimedia in teaching materials science and engineering.

JOM is a publication of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society

Conference Review

Educational Approaches to Teaching Introductory Courses

Tammy M. Beazley


Introductory courses not only often serve as first-year college students' first exposure to subjects such as materials science, they also provide the fundamental principles and concepts on which the student will build throughout their academic career. If a solid foundation is not created through mastery of the general principles of a study field, the entire structure (i.e., the student's academic and employment career) may be weakened. Hence, the introductory course has been the subject of extensive ongoing examination.

Traditional teaching styles based on lecture and testing are coming under closer scrutiny as a new generation of students raised on computers enters the classroom. In an effort to develop better teaching approaches for introductory courses, academia is taking a look at alternative styles that implement advanced educational tools as an alternative or supplement to lecture-based courses. Some of the programs that have developed out of this introspection were discussed at the 1998 TMS Annual Meeting in the symposium Educational Approaches to Teaching Introductory Courses: How to Teach a Better Course.

Sponsored by the TMS Education Committee and organized by Marc DeGraef of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Linda Schadler of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the one-day symposium featured invited and submitted talks from academics on approaches to introductory materials science courses. Interactive courses, teaching tools, and alternative approaches to traditional curricula were outlined, then discussed by a panel of presenters at the end of the day. A poster session allowed attendees, which averaged 43 listeners per paper, to review some of the tools being used.


In order to design better courses, general views of teaching and learning must be examined. Teaching and learning are not synonymous, as was pointed out by Susan A. Ambrose of the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at CMU. Many teachers define learning through common metaphors of the student as "a sponge that absorbs material" or as "a container into which knowledge is poured." However, these metaphors limit the way knowledge is taught by placing the student in an inactive role in the learning process.

To promote learning (what Ambrose calls moving students from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence), teachers need to understand the importance of connecting prior knowledge to new concepts, creating effective organizing schemes for information to assimilate contextual understanding, using multiple representations to reinforce key concepts, and promoting active engagement in learning.

Giving students the responsibility for their own learning is difficult, said Ambrose, who likened the students' responses to this empowerment as going through the steps associated with trauma. Students often lack skills such as self-monitoring, time management, and effective listening. Note taking is a good example of this problem; students write what they are seeing, but do not process what they are hearing, thus missing the concept being explained. Information can be forgotten at every step of the learning process; in order to acquire the knowledge, students must do something with it and organize it for future retrieval. Unfortunately, prior knowledge, which is very important for continued learning, is often missing or incomplete because students do not know how to retrieve it. Thus, students are unable to apply new ideas in practical situations.

In order to develop competence, students need frequent practice and timely and constructive feedback, whether through homework, in-class activities, or discussion. Among the recommendations Ambrose suggested for helping first-year undergraduates to learn were:


Many of Ambrose's recommendations, either singly or in groups, have been implemented independently in several first-year materials science courses. Some courses, such as those at RPI and California Polytechnic State University, have abandoned the lecture format entirely for more interactive modes, while other courses, such as those at Lafayette College or Miami University, have modified the traditional lecture format.

According to John B. Hudson of the Materials Science and Engineering Department at RPI, the lecture format used was inefficient and replaced with an interactive studio format. Combining freshman chemistry and beginning materials science, the two-semester course meets for two hours twice a week and uses presentations, problem solving, software, demonstrations, and laboratories. Each class, which consists of a maximum of 60 students per faculty member, is divided into four-person teams that sit together and work on problems.

New material in the course is presented through a brief lecture, then reinforced with a problem solved by the teams during class. The solution is discussed by the class as a whole. A new item is then introduced, and the process begins again; there are generally three to four new points made per class.

The program, which has been phased in over the past three years, has several advantages, said Hudson. Attendance has increased to 95 percent. The problem-solving format provides immediate feedback to the instructors on whether the class has grasped the new material and enables them to identify students having difficulty through their observations of the teams. Rapport among students and instructors is improved, and students learn team work.

There have been so drawbacks as well, Hudson pointed out. In order for the course to work, good teaching assistants are required. A minority of students are uncomfortable working in teams, and some members of the science faculty at RPI are unconvinced of the program's merits. The course is also equipment-intensive.

A similar program is being devised at California Polytechnic State University. Called the Foundation Series, the program integrates math, science, and technology into an introductory materials laboratory course, said Linda Vanasupa of the university's Materials Engineering Department.

According to Vanasupa, the majority of students learn subjects in a dissociated fashion, which she likened to "eating a lemon meringue pie one ingredient at a time." The Foundation Series uses experiments fashioned in accordance with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's Criteria 2000 for integrated, experience-oriented learning in team settings. Using an experiment from the series, she outlined how the class would resolve a problem on corrosion.

A more traditional approach to learning, only with some revisions, is used by James P. Schaffer at Lafayette College. In his introductory materials course, Schaffer keeps a lecture format, but has changed the lecture's structure based on the opinions of his students, who felt too many topics were being addressed too quickly. Hence, Schaffer presents two key points each class.

"Lectures should be valuable, relevant, and interesting," said Schaffer. "You have to say the key points in three ways—words, pictures, equations."

A normal class begins with a brief review of the previous class, followed by a global perspective of the points as they pertain to larger concepts. As Schaffer gets into the new material being covered, he makes his first point and reiterates it in the first 15 minutes of class; the second point follows in the next ten minutes. Schaffer's lecture lasts 25 minutes, leaving the second half of the class open for four options: asking questions, finding examples and relating them to the two key points, working examples, or creating design problems.

Another lecture-based materials engineering course taught by Bruce P. Bardes at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has revised the curriculum of the course to emphasize materials properties. Bardes found that most textbooks for materials science and engineering begin with atoms, move into crystal structure and defects, then to alloys and phase diagrams, structure, and finally to properties. However, this approach does not adequately address the professional needs of students, argues Bardes, who will be assisting other engineers in materials selection based on properties.

Bardes has revised the order in which the subjects are taught, starting with an examination of service conditions and the correlating materials properties. After properties, the course moves into structure. Overall, the course emphasizes materials selection, properties, manufacturing processes, characterization, structure, alloys, transformations, and interrelationships.

The advantages of this approach are two-fold, said Bardes. First, it serves the future professional needs of students by getting them to think in terms of materials selection based on properties. Second, it establishes a high level of interest in the subject matter by considering real materials and real applications.

"The only disadvantage I have found in using this approach has been the need to skip around the textbook," said Bardes, "and chapters toward the end of most textbooks presume that the student has already gained command of subject matter presented at the beginning of the book."


Regardless of their general structure or format, one thing all introductory courses have in common is the use of teaching tools to promote learning. These aids are as varied as textbooks and overhead transparencies to the most advanced CD-ROM interactive modules.

One of the most fundamental tools is the textbook, although the parameters of textbook publishing have changed vastly recently. Leslie G. Bondaryk of PWS Publishing provided guidelines for authoring published media, noting that a publishing project is made successful through goals, accessibility, and testing.

Another teaching aid, Quicknotes, was developed by James B. Adams at Arizona State University. Quicknotes is a four-sided laminated hand-out that contains concepts and equations, as well as a glossary and materials database.

In the poster session, teaching aids from the University of Auckland's Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering were presented by Joe T. Gregory, who displayed an array of tools designed to "capture only the student's full attention at worse, entire imagination at best." Another poster presentation, by Chester J. Van Tyne, took a look at the introductory course in metallurgical and materials engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, which uses field visits and materials design problems.


[Editor's Note: The following three papers comprise the May 1998 edition of JOM-e and can be viewed in their entirety (with multimedia enhancements) exclusively on this site. The papers have no print equivalents.]

One of the fastest growing tools in classrooms is multimedia. From enhanced course textbooks to CD-ROMs and computer software, all of the courses discussed use multimedia teaching aids to some degree.

Charles J. McMahon, Jr., discussed the use of multimedia tutorials for an introductory materials science course at the University of Pennsylvania. The tutorials cover such topics as dislocations and plastic deformation, phase diagrams, magnetic materials, and electronic materials. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the tutorials are made available at no cost to instructors for review.

Multimedia materials used specifically for teaching fluid mechanics at the University of Minnesota were presented in a poster by Vaughan R. Voller. Courseware modules detailing fluid mechanics were developed over three years and include both content- and laboratory-based materials.

A third paper from the symposium that was unavailable for presentation at the meeting also appears in JOM-e. In it, Darcy J.M. Clark of the University of Michigan discusses the development and integration of web-based software for use in introductory materials science courses.


One key thread ran throughout the symposium hands-on learning. In a panel discussion featuring Ambrose, Bondaryk, Bardes, and McMahon, Jr., all agreed that the biggest lack in students' knowledge is a lack of practical application, a "lack of tinkering." One way to develop hands-on learning is through homework; as Ambrose commented, "practice makes experts."

Tapping into everyday life is a good way of making class interesting, the panel agreed. Using examples from the news or from students' lives will enable them to make the necessary connections to take what they learn and apply it.

Regardless of the methods used to teach, the panel concluded that drastic change will not work. Evaluate the students and the classroom and ease into changes; do not alienate the students. After all, if the students do not come, they cannot learn.

Tammy M. Beazley is copy editor of JOM.

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 1998

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