A First Course on Kinetics and Reaction Engineering
I have always enjoyed teaching and have tried to do it well. I never received any formal training on how to teach, though I did occasionally attend teaching workshops and similar events. While I'm by no means an education scholar, I do try to read a little of the engineering education literature, mainly "Chemical Engineering Education." Over the years I've particularly enjoyed Richard Felder's short pieces that appear there. At some point I read one these that was entitled "It Goes Without Saying" which was published in Chem. Engr. Education 25(3), 132-133 (1991). After reading the following quote from that article, I started making some changes in the way I taught.
The fact is that what routinely goes on in most college classes is not teaching and learning, but stenography: professor transcribes notes from notebook to chalkboard, students transcribe from chalkboard back to notebook. Even if the notes are supplemented with all sorts of insightful commentary, research shows that students in lectures generally retain a reasonable percentage only of what they hear in the first ten minutes and relatively little of anything that happens thereafter. They really only learn by thinking and doing, not watching and listening.
I started trying to work little learning activities into my classes, but I continued to rely primarily on the traditional lecture format. My experiences while doing so supported literature findings that active learning is more effective than a traditional lecture. It also has provided some of my most rewarding teaching experiences. I can't remember ever leaving a lecture excited by what students had learned, because it was never apparent what (or whether) they had learned. In contrast, I can remember the satisfaction of many occasions where I could "see the light go on" for one or more students during a learning activity.
As a consequence, I decided to completely change format of the undergraduate kinetics and reaction engineering course I teach so that students spend the majority of class time engaged in learning activities. In support of that change I decided to create an integrated set of resources that would hopefully make it much easier for others to do the same. This website provides resources for students to use as they learn and resources for instructors to use as they teach. The learning resources include informational and illustrational readings and videos among other things. The videos are animated slides with narration equivalent to what I would have presented in class back in the days when I taught using the lecture format. The teaching resources include questions for pre-class quizzes, slides for in-class study unit review and slides and other materials for in-class activities. A brief summary of how I use these resources in my class is given here.
The course contents (and this website) are divided into 40 “study units,” and each semester a course schedule identifies which study units will form the basis of each class meeting. Before class students are expected to complete the corresponding readings, watch the videos and write down any questions they have about them. I feel this pre-class preparation is of paramount importance, so I use my university's online course delivery software (a version of Blackboard) to give a simple quiz that must be completed prior to each class (it ceases to be available at the time class starts). The quiz questions are not overly difficult, but hopefully the requirement to take a quiz before each class causes the students to gain some level of familiarity with the subject matter for that class. The teaching resources for each unit on this website include quiz questions that might be used in this way.
Thus, by the time a given class starts, the students should already be familiar with the subject matter, and ideally they have brought along lists of questions on points that were not clear to them from the readings and videos. I begin the class with a brief review of that subject matter. Slides for this purpose are included here among the teaching resources for each study unit. I spend the first 10 to 15 minutes of a 50 minute class presenting these review slides. At the end of that time I pause to take any questions that the students have brought with them or that occurred to them during the review.
When all student questions have been answered, the class begins a learning activity. The duration of most of the learning activities is 15 to 20 minutes. This means that two such activities typically take place during a given class meeting. A variety of types of learning activities are used. The vast majority of them involve solving problems similar to the examples from the units and the homework that will be assigned. Whenever possible, the particular problems used are chosen to extend the information presented in the unit readings and videos. Problem solving activities are conducted in a number of different ways in an attempt to add variety to the classes. Other types of activities (one minute papers, three slide presentations, object lessons, simulator activities, etc.) are also used when appropriate.
Materials for learning activities are also included here among the teaching resources for each study unit. Typical materials for a learning activity might include a handout to provide to the students, slides to use when conducting the activity in class, an outline of how to conduct the activity, a completed solution (for a problem solving activity) that can be provided to students at the end of the activity, etc. Learning activities can also be found online from other sources, but a nice feature of those included here is that they are fully integrated with the study units. The nomenclature is the same, the activities don't depend upon a topic that hasn't been presented yet, etc. Some of the activities use simulators, and in those cases the simulators are provided among the learning tools for the study unit.
Based upon student surveys and my own observation, I have found that once they have adjusted to this method of course delivery, the students prefer it. Exam results indicate that their mastery of kinetics and reaction engineering at the end of the course is as good as, or better than it was when I taught using only lectures. From the students' viewpoints, as expressed in surveys and formal course evaluations, reaching that level of mastery was easier and more enjoyable in most cases. I haven't collected quantitative data to support or refute these qualitative observations, but in light of the literature and my personal observations, I am confident that this is a superior approach to teaching and learning.
To anyone who elects to use the learning and teaching tools provided on this website, I hope you have the same kind of positive learning/teaching experiences as I've had when using them.
November 7, 2013
Facilities and resources at the University at Buffalo, SUNY were provided and utilized in the development of many of the resources available on this website. The School of Engineering and Applied Science hosts the website on their computer network and provides administration for those computers. The simulators, some of the videos, some of the learning activities and the initial assessment efforts were supported by the National Science Foundation under an award from the Division of Undergraduate Education entitled "TExTs for the 21st Century," DUE Award No. 0736495. I would like to express my sincere thanks for all these forms of support for this project.