Mobile Hands-On Experiments and Collaborative Learning

Aldo Ferri
Professor and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies
Georgia Tech

Experiential learning can be a very effective way of getting students to interact with the engineering concepts and see them in action shortly before or after being exposed to the theory. Team based activities that accompany hands-on learning are a further way of enhancing learning as students collaborate with each other to discuss and test their ideas. This project aims to amplify such hands-on experiences by developing new mobile experimental platforms in mechanics, thermal systems, and electrical/electronic systems for use in a variety of ME, AE, ECE, and multidisciplinary courses.

All too often, difficult engineering concepts are introduced in lecture-based courses focused on highly structured assignments and neat textbook problems. Later, they may see these concepts in experimental or laboratory courses. One of the goals of this research effort is to use well-designed, portable and inexpensive hands-on learning platforms to illuminate critical concepts soon after or contemporaneous with the lecture content. In the case of team-based activities, good peer-to-peer interaction can strengthen the learning opportunities. Ensuring that all students including those from diverse groups benefit from the collaborative, active-learning environment is needed to maximize learning effectiveness.

Guiding Question:
The availability of highly accurate, inexpensive, data acquisition systems gives us an unprecedented opportunity to build compact, portable, engineering devices. But which concepts would benefit most from experiments? What is the best way to structure the procedures to make the experiments straightforward but leaves the right amount of freedom for students to explore “what if” scenarios? Do the advantages of hands-on learning extend to all types of students, or does the efficacy fall short for students from underrepresented groups?

To date, we have developed a number of hands-on learning platforms and have used them in ME, ECE, and AE classes. For many of the platforms, an inclusive, participatory-design process was employed, allowing student groups to suggest concepts, design experiments, and fabricate prototypes. We have also developed assessment measures in the form of concept inventories to evaluate the extent to which the hands-on learning experiences strengthen understanding and promote long-lasting retention of knowledge and concepts. The project also concerns effective instruction and classroom practices to ensure that diverse student teams function well, with all students feeling comfortable and confident to work together to learn new concepts.

Broader Impacts:
The development of experimental platforms (hardware) and of specific learning experiences (instruction pedagogy) should improve the learning experience and student retention within a variety of engineering fields. Additionally, development of concept inventories will give instructors a way to measure benefits of the hands-on interventions relative to traditional, lecture-based instruction. Intervention strategies that can be used by instructors to ensure and manage team dynamics also apply broadly to any environment that uses peer-to-peer interaction.


Bonnie Ferri, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, GA, James Craig, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, GA, Emmanuel Glakpe, Howard University, Washington, DC