Part II: Learner-centered teaching in a large undergraduate course

Introduction: An Undergraduate Introductory Environmental Engineering Course

To gain additional practice teaching, specifically teaching undergraduates in a large class setting, I TA’ed an introductory environmental engineering course. All Civil Engineering students at UW-Madison are required to complete CIVENGR 320: Environmental Engineering. This class typically has 80 to 90 students ranging from sophomores to seniors. A small number of Biological Systems Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Chemical Engineering students also take the course. Because Civil Engineering is such a broad field, the course has students who are interested in exploring environmental engineering as a career, as well as students who have already decided to focus on other areas, such as Structural Engineering, Construction Engineering or Transportation Engineering.

One persistent challenge in the course was motivating students to learn how to apply chemistry to solve engineering problems. Chemistry is vital for many aspects of environmental engineering, from understanding human impacts on natural ecosystems to engineering processes to clean water. As part of a teaching-as-research project (Artifact 3), I created and implemented a Flint Water Crisis Case Study in an attempt to improve cognitive and affective chemistry outcomes in the course. To assess if outcomes were met, I used a writing assignment, final exam questions, and a post-course survey. The case study consisted of two online lessons, three lectures, a problem set solved in groups, a quiz taken individually, and a writing assignment completed individually.

When preparing the materials for the case study, I reviewed recent course surveys and found that students considered the online lessons highly beneficial to their learning. This led me to develop two short videos (7 min and 16 min). Through this process, I learned that it takes a long time to prepare a good video. I am sure I will become more efficient, but in order to prepare 30 short videos that one might need for a full course, I imagine it could take several weeks. The good thing is that once you have a good video, you can reuse it over and over again. The videos I made for this course are available by request.

Developing and implementing the writing assignment (Artifact 4) was particularly beneficial to my learning. My faculty partner suggested early-on that I reach out to the UW Writing Center for help in preparing the assignment. I exchanged several e-mails and met with the assistant director of Writing Across the Curriculum. The resources provided (available on their website: were used to develop the assignment. A primary lesson learned is that a detailed rubric can often be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful writing assignment. The writing assignment will be featured in the Spring 2019 Writing Across the Curriculum newsletter.

Students also completed a group problem set (Artifact 5) related to the Flint Water Crisis. Dr. McMahon used many best practices for group work that I will use in the future: purposefully designing groups to account for diversity in backgrounds and abilities; having groups discuss constructive and destructive group behaviors at their first meeting; having groups write and sign contracts highlighting group member expectations; assigning roles within the groups; and performing mid-semester group check-ins.

While I had given many lectures in courses before, this experience also taught me the usefulness of several active-learning tools. Specifically, this experience made me appreciate concept maps (Artifact 6), minute papers (Artifact 7), and electronic student response systems (Artifact 8). These tools are great for formative assessments and real-time feedback on what students have (or haven’t) learned.

Reflection: Chemistry, Iraqi Immigrants, and Environmental Justice

Implementing teaching-as-research

The summative report from my teaching-as-research internship (Artifact 3) demonstrates how I will use evidence-based teaching practices in the future. In short, implementing this case study was one of the highlights of my graduate school experience. It is my hope that the Flint Water Crisis will continue to be taught and that professors will continue to collect evidence on its effectiveness. I will continue to collect data and design interventions to try to improve student learning. To test the success of interventions, I will continue to use the techniques I used during my internship.

Part of teaching-as-research is sharing results with other teachers. To this end, I presented the project at the Education Research Poster Fair at UW-Madison and the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors meeting at Arizona State University in May 2019.

In addition to conducting teaching-as-research, I also implemented evidence-based teaching practices to promote active learning. These included concept maps (Artifact 6), minute papers (Artifact 7) and real-time student response system question (Artifact 8). While all three were effective at keeping students engaged, they also helped me learn how well students were learning. Concept maps were particularly valuable in identifying misconceptions related to the Flint Water Crisis. Specifically, the concept map activity identified that students did not yet understand the differences between chlorine and chloride and how they were related to the chlorine residual used for protecting distribution systems. This allowed me to reinforce these concepts prior to the summative assessment.

Fostering learning communities

Students worked in groups to solve the Flint Water Crisis problem set (Artifact 5). Students were in the same groups throughout the semester, and Dr. McMahon implemented several best practices to ensure groups functioned well. First, she intelligently designed groups rather than assigning groups randomly. Second, she had groups create and sign contracts during the first problem solving session. Third, she introduced students to persistent constructive and destructive group behaviors. Fourth, she assigned roles within the groups at the beginning of the semester. Fifth, she performed a mid-semester check-in to ensure groups were working well together. My specific contributions to fostering learning communities involved monitoring group work. For the problem set I designed, I also tried to make it difficult enough to require positive interdependence among group members. In short, Dr. McMahon introduced me to several group work best practices that I will use in my classes. The peer review component of the writing assignment (Artifact 4) also helped students provide feedback to their peers.

Promoting diversity and inclusion

The Flint Water Crisis also provided an opportunity for students to engage in considering issues of environmental justice. Minute paper responses (Artifact 7) indicated that students were fired-up by the story and that the Flint story forced them to think about issues that they had not previously considered. The Flint Water Crisis demonstrates what can happen when austerity displaces democracy. At a certain time, over 90% of the black population in Michigan was governed by an unelected emergency manager. While I recognize that I cannot address environmental justice adequately in a one-week case study, I plan to develop and teach an environmental justice course in the future. Given how students responded to the Flint Water crisis, I think this would be a valuable course for aspiring environmental engineers and others. The proposed course would consider the Flint Water Crisis along with other recent and historic environmental crises, including the fight to remove lead from gasoline, the proliferation of harmful pesticides (and the Silent Spring), the Woburn incident, Love Canal, and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In retrospect, the Flint Water Crisis also offered a great opportunity to incorporate diversity into course content. The fact that heroes of the Flint story include a daughter of Iraqi immigrants, a water expert from a Hispanic family, and several economically disadvantaged residents made the story even more interesting to students.

While teaching the Flint Water Crisis was a rewarding experience, and the crisis provides for an impactful case study, we should never forget the kids who were poisoned and the 12 people who lost their lives because of austerity measures and terrible engineering decisions.

Teaching Artifacts

Artifact 3: Teaching as Research Internship Project Report

My teaching-as-research internship report was completed during the Fall 2018 semester. I started developing the project in Summer 2018 with help from my faculty partner (Trina McMahon) and my internship cohort. Trina had collected a lot of data on student performance and perceptions since she started teaching the course. I analyzed some of this data (some of this analysis is included in Artifact 3) which supported Trina’s thoughts that a large number of students in the course never got over their dislike of chemistry. One response to an open-ended survey question from the Fall 2017 cohort stuck out: “Chemistry is my kryptonite and will always remain a voodoo black magic to me …”

The goal of my internship project was thus to make chemistry less of a voodoo black magic for students in the course. To do this, I implemented a Flint Water Crisis case study that contained several components. I used evidence-based teaching approaches to assess if the case study improved attitudes towards chemistry and/ or chemistry performance and which components of the case study were most beneficial to student learning.

The case study was developed using a backwards design approach. First, I developed measurable learning outcomes. Based on the desired learning outcomes, I developed activities and assessments to help students achieve the desired outcomes. The internship report (Artifact 3) describes the activities and assessments in detail and also describes how we determined if learning outcomes were achieved. Lastly, the report makes recommendations for improving the Flint Water Crisis case study for future cohorts.


Artifact 4: Flint Water Crisis Writing Assignment

A major component of the Flint Water Crisis case study was a writing assignment. Historically, the course had weekly writing assignments in which students discussed how a topic in the news related to material they were learning in the course. Professor McMahon indicated that students did not take these assignments seriously and they were a burden to grade. We replaced these weekly writing assignments with one large assignment in which students were asked to describe several aspects of the Flint Water Crisis and to suggest ways to prevent another Flint Water Crisis from occurring.

One of the primary drivers for using a writing assignment was to provide students a platform to engage fully with the events of the Flint Water Crisis. While understanding the chemistry behind the crisis is important, understanding the mistakes that caused the crisis and the toll on the Flint community is also important. While the learning outcomes primarily relate to explaining the chemistry behind the crisis, many students also engaged with the environmental and social justice issues underlying the crisis. In this way, I believe many students were able to recognize that understanding chemistry can actually help save lives and that Civil and Environmental Engineers have an obligation to protect public health.

At times while preparing the assignment, it fell as though I was combining two things Civil Engineering students generally struggle with: writing and chemistry. I engaged with the literature to find best practices for writing assignments and also utilized the Writing Across the Curriculum program at UW-Madison. The assistant director, Mike Haen, shared several examples of past writing assignments form a variety of courses and helped me develop the assignment.

The assignment included a peer-review processes in which students worked with a partner to review each other’s work. To assist students with this process, I provided a detailed review sheet for them to use and I included examples of good and bad feedback.


Artifact 5: Flint Water Crisis Problem Set

Another component of the Flint Water Crisis case study was a problem set focused on applying chemistry to understand how lead can get into drinking water systems and how it can also lead to pathogen outbreaks. This problem set, like all problem sets in this course, were solved in student groups of 4 to five students. Students were given about one week to complete the assignment and participated in their weekly 2-hour facilitated problem solving session to work on the problems in their groups.

The first problem asks students to calculate the Larson-Skold index for a “clean” groundwater source and a “dirty” river. This represents an estimate of the corrosivity of different potential water sources, which is something was ignored when making the decision to switch water sources in Flint. The second problem illustrates how lead can exist in many different states and forms complexes with many different compounds in water. The third question asks students to consider how a corrosion inhibitor (which was not originally added in Flint) keeps lead levels low. The fourth question combines chemistry principles with reactor models to predict the level of lead at someone’s home from chlorine reacting with lead pipes. It also asks students to consider how lead consumed the chlorine residual in Flint's distribution system, which is suspected of causing an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that killed several people.


Artifact 6: Example Concept Maps

One of my favorite in-class active learning exercises is having students work in groups to draw concept maps. Concept maps help students relate different course topics and provide feedback on persistent misconceptions. Students worked in self-assigned groups after a lecture to create the concept maps shown below. These two student-generated concept maps were chosen because they show the utility of concept maps in identifying persistent misconceptions related to the Flint Water Crisis. The final concept map shown is my solution which I provided students after the activity.

This concept map incorrectly identifies chloride (Cl-) as part of the chlorine residual
This concept map correctly identifies that brass may be a better option than lead, but brass pipes can also contain lead

Artifact 7: Example Minute Papers

The minute papers below represent student responses to the following prompt after I lectured on the “story” of the Flint Water Crisis. The prompt is shown below:

Artifact 8: Example Real-time Student Response (Tophat)

The figure below shows a summary of Tophat responses from a lecture I gave on wastewater treatment. I like this question because it points to persistent challenges related to environmental chemistry. After confirming that students struggled to solve the problem, I worked-out the problem in class.