Published: Mon Aug 23, 2010
In Pedro Arce’s High Performance Learning Environment engineering classroom, students talk a lot, share information, build on others’ ideas and create new ideas that often fail. But is that any way to educate an engineer?
Absolutely, says Arce, Tennessee Tech University’s chemical engineering department chairperson and advocate for creating a new kind of engineer—creative, innovative and an entrepreneur—who can help solve the world’s grand challenges.
As part of the annual meeting of the Engineering Research Centers Association of the National Science Foundation, Arce gave an invited keynote presentation on his award winning “High Performance Learning Environment, Hi-PeLE.” Arce was selected to describe what is perceived by many as one of the best current practices in engineering education to develop creative and innovative engineers for the 21st Century.
“Our country needs engineers who can help solve the societal challenges we face,” said Arce. “The National Engineering Academy has identified a group of grand challenges where most likely a different kind of engineer would be needed.
“What a Hi-PeLE does is produce an engineer who is less of a conductor and more of a composer. Instead of being an individual that basically maintains and implements the score as written, the new type of engineer will be willing and able to change the score, or even better, write new partitures.”
Recently the U.S. National Academy of Engineering convened experts from around the world, some of the most accomplished engineers and scientists of their generation, at the request of NSF. The panel outlined 14 grand challenges facing the world, including making solar energy economical, providing access to clean water, engineering better medicines, reverse engineering the brain and preventing nuclear terror.
“The characteristics related to the innovation and creativity need to address these challenges are exactly opposite to those used in training and educating the future engineers in the majority of engineering schools today,” said Arce.
"We need engineers who are able to immediately impact the economy with new and more efficient technology. The knowledge economy needs to be replaced by a creative economy,” he continued.
He explained the typical engineering classroom rewards solo playing, individual credit and one right answer. He says the environment, which relies heavily on lectures, is stressful to many and boring to most, and discourages communication.
“A great way to kill innovation and creativity in the future engineers is to tell them there is only one solution for a given problem and that solution comes from the instructor.
“The new environment is based on a simple but powerful principle: Every time that an instructor-based explanation is replaced by a student-based activity, we are bringing an effective learning environment to the students,” Arce said.
This process put the students in the driving seat of creativity and innovation and promotes a composer-style engineer as opposed to the usual conductor-type, he explained. This principle puts the students at the center stage of the learning process and removes the instructor from there to a position as a facilitator of learning
The Hi-PeLE approach necessitates the engagement of all members of a group, says Jeff Thompson, chemical engineering graduate student.
“The success of the group is necessarily dependent upon the ideas and evaluations of each member,” said Thompson. “Therefore, the most successful groups will be the ones who have both spent time thinking about the problem at hand and have provided one or more potential solutions based upon their analysis.”
While this is typical of active and collaborative learning, Hi-PeLE goes beyond to promote innovation and creativity as part of the vital components of the new engineer. In addition to using learning and documentation cycles, Hi-PeLE places students in a team-based environment with functions carefully identified in order to produce innovation. An algorithmic sequence, a new mathematical procedure or an experimental prototype have been used as outcomes.
Arce says the most effective learning environments involve like-minded people who share ideas and don’t care who gets individual credit. They work in a "Group's Genius Mode" where the individual engineer is critically integrated as part of a team and where failure has a new dimension as a catalyst of innovation and not as a penalization of success.
“The most creative people are the ones who fail the most,” he said. “Creativity is inefficient; it takes time and involves a small series of insights to reach a successful solution.
“What is important in the development of the successful engineer for the creative economy is more about the process and less about the product; it’s more critical thinking and less about the exact number from the equation.
“Quoting a colleague, we want students to realize that two plus two is not just four, we want them to realize that it is addition!”
How does Hi-PeLE play to students and instructors? It has been systematically developed and applied in numerous engineering programs in the United States and in Argentina for high school students. It’s becoming an effective technique for the STEM disciplines that promotes a new, innovative and creative approach for the future engineer.
“Engineering is a dynamic profession that encompasses a broad spectrum of technical fields making it an attractive discipline to a wide variety of students with diverse learning styles,” David Huddleston, TTU’s College of Engineering dean, said. “Throughout his career, Dr. Arce has worked to develop and refine engaging learning techniques that can make STEM education appealing to a larger segment of our students.
“Within the framework of creativity and innovation, he extends the tradition of excellence in engineering education that remains a hallmark of our College of Engineering,” Huddleston said.
Chemical engineering professor Don Visco says the approach inspires him to push forward with the technique.
“Seeing the departmental chairperson push the traditional boundaries of instruction through his Hi-PeLE approach has been a sort of invitation to me to explore novel approaches in my own courses,” said Visco. “He is leading by example in the classroom.”
Arce says two challenges are the transformation of the culture in students and in the re-training of the instructors.
“My experience is that, after some initial resistance, students learn the high benefits of the methodology and they are willing to try, and the traditional instructors are one of the richest pools to be transformed into effective facilitators,” said Arce. “Newcomers are usually very enthusiastic about the technique and they champion it immediately.”