ChE Lecturer Dandan Xu Puts the Zing in Chemical Engineering Courses by Gamifying Student Presentations
According to an article on the UMass Amherst Instructional Design, Engagement, and Support (IDEAS) website, one problem with teaching engineering courses is that students often view the field as rigorous and rigid – governed by complex equations, detailed diagrams, and structured protocols. As the IDEAS website says, “The ‘seriousness’ of engineering topics can leave instructors, and students, feeling as though there is little room for fun in the learning process.” But not so in the classroom of Lecturer Dandan Xu of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department. As one of 12 UMass IDEAS Fellows (IIF Fellows) for 2023-2024, Xu has developed some innovative strategies that stimulate active learning inside and outside the classroom, including infusing student presentations with a Shark Tank-like atmosphere.
As the IDEAS article explains, “Inspired by the popular show Shark Tank, which involves a fast-paced, high-stakes environment where people have an idea that they ‘pitch’ to potential funders, Dr. Xu developed a ‘Rapid Fire Design Tournament.’ Students are put into teams, where they play the role of budding entrepreneurs. The rest of the class, and invited faculty, play the role of potential investors who may ask questions to each group after [its] pitch.”
What inspired Xu’s adventurous dive into Shark Tank-infested waters was the tradition that senior engineering student teams are required to deliver final capstone presentations, in which student groups provide in-depth technical details on their design projects. Each semester, she observed senior students deliver “lengthy, technically-accurate presentations—to mostly empty rooms,” as the IDEAS article reports. “Their presentations, while factually sound, lacked the dynamism that leads to audience engagement and participation and potential peer-to-peer learning.”
Xu believes it is essential to prepare the future generation of engineering researchers and practitioners with the ability to distill complex engineering concepts and problems into understandable language and to translate “engineeringese” into popular English for the benefit of a broader audience.
To break the monotony of these dry presentations, Xu adopted a game-based approach that adds interaction among students through competition – leading to experiences that are educational, enjoyable, and fulfilling. Moreover, to ensure that the relevant technical details are well-elaborated and in-depth discussions are included, Xu requires written reports both before and after the presentations.
Xu teaches several courses, ranging from basic introductory courses for first-year engineering students to much more sophisticated capstone courses for seniors majoring in Chemical Engineering.
“In her teaching,” as the IDEAS article stresses, “[Xu] strives to foster self-driven learning and promote peer-to-peer interaction within the classroom.”
As an IIF fellow, Xu recently presented some of her innovative strategies to stimulate more dynamic learning, both inside and outside the classroom, during a meeting of the 2023 Instructional Innovation Fellowship on Friday, October 13 of 2023, at Bartlett Hall.
Xu’s presentation described her resourceful teaching strategies based on her experiences with different interactive tools and game-based setups that are designed to boost student participation and enhance learning outcomes.
Xu’s gamifying approach is perfect for the IDEAS community, which supports innovative teaching strategies using technology. In that context, the organization regularly engages with educators to see how they use technology in their teaching, to share teaching ideas, to build a community, and to learn from each other. (January 2024)