Visual, interactive learning applications

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Visual, interactive learning applications

In this project, we developed new visual and interactive teaching materials for the course “Structural Concrete I & II” by means of web applications, graphic animations and physical models. As a supplement to the classical teaching setup of lectures and exercises, the integration of more engaging virtual labs into the existing curriculum shall foster the self-motivated studying interest of students, thereby improving their understanding of fundamental mechanical behaviour of structural concrete.

What triggered the conception of the learning applications?

The courses “Structural Concrete I & II” are mostly taught with a conventional approach of frontal lecturing for the entire class and a limited number of guided exercises and colloquia organised in smaller groups, complemented by a couple of site visits during each year. Although the lectures have always been evaluated with high marks by the students, the course material kept being rated slightly lower than the rest of the course. The curriculum focuses on a mechanically consistent treatment of structural concrete, which serves as a solid basis for structural analysis and design, applicable to any building material and fostering the student’s ability to develop appropriate models for non-standard cases. However, the current teaching approach is limited when it comes to enhancing the student’s self-driven learning motivation. Most examples in the lecture and in the exercises only describe static isolated states with pre-defined parameters, which makes it difficult to fully grasp the non-linear behaviour of structural concrete. A dynamic presentation of the results and the possibility to actively change parameters in the setup can help overcoming these limitations. To this end, we have developed virtual experiments, animations and selected physical models presented during the lectures (as a surrogate for large-scale experiments as used in research, which would be unmanageable in teaching).

What are success factors?

In order to reach the goals of the project, the new, interactive course material must be appealing for today’s generation of “digital native” students, i.e. visually attractive and user friendly, such that the interactive application of theoretical knowledge and the self-driven effort of students can indeed be fostered. The implementation of visually appealing and intuitive applications demands knowledge and experience in web development among the project members. We also had to find a platform that was easy to learn, so that future generations of teaching assistants can easily adjust the applications and knowledge transfer is guaranteed. We wanted the new course material as an integral part of the curriculum. The existing course material had to be carefully adjusted in order to achieve a coherent and logical outline of the lecture and its curriculum. Therefore, all members of the project team must be familiar with the current course material.

To what extent does the application support critical thinking among students?

Virtual experiments and analysis tools allow the students to conduct their own parameter studies for given problems and test setups. This will engage them more in understanding physical relationships and the basics of mechanical modelling. Since the experiment is controlled by student (e.g. increasing the load with a slider), intermediate steps can be reported and especially, transition phases can be examined with special attention.

Is the tool mainly used for self-study or is it embedded in the classroom?

In the first phase, we have implemented the use of the applications and physical models mostly within the lecture to either introduce a new topic or enhance the knowledge about a problem that was introduced earlier with conventional teaching approaches (blackboard or slides). However, it is our goal that the additional teaching material will be seen as an integral part in all aspects of the course. In the second phase starting from now, we will further revise the course material with a special focus on the exercises, where the advantages of a combined use of hand calculations and virtual experiments shall be enhanced and the students shall be motivated to use the applications more by themselves.

Is there already feedback from students on the tool?

We have conducted an evaluation among students after the first year of inauguration. The reception of the new teaching material was generally good and the technical quality was highly praised. Many students used the applications in the exam preparation, proving their potential in self-studying situations. However, the engagement during the semester was rather low mostly due to the lack of time, which shows the need for an adjustment of the exercises to more actively promote the use of the applications.

What were the biggest hurdles or stumbling blocks during the planning phase and the implementation of the new content?

The course curriculum and the teaching material had continuously been growing over the last years. When adding the new teaching elements, it was a great challenge to adjust and sort out parts of the existing material. We had to make sure that we do not overload the students in an already dense course, which made us really question for what kind of information the old or the new material was more suitable. We still believe that many fundamentals of the course can be learned best when the students use pen and paper. However, for the further exploration of parameter influences or for the more dynamic presentation of the results, the interactive application can be a great learning tool.

What is next for the course?

As already mentioned, we want to put more emphasis on the self-studying aspect during the semester, for which we are thoroughly revising the colloquia and exercises. Furthermore, we want to link the new course material more to real-life applications. Since the content still focuses on theoretical models and simulations, we want to establish a direct link to experiments in the laboratory or even real building structures, which will further increase the student’s motivation.

I think it is important that the applications are introduced during the lecture, so we can see their functionality. I only had limited time during the semester to explore them myself. However, they are very useful for exam preparation.
Student (anonymous)