Hands-On Learning

A model wooden truss bridge is balanced between two chairs with weight suspended beneath it.
WSU’s Engineering 120 course gives students a hands-on introduction to engineering.

One by one the freshmen students test makeshift prosthetic hands.

Some are made of chop sticks, rubber bands, plastic spoons, or a tin can. Others are beautifully crafted cardboard cutouts with ligament-like strings that approximate the movement of a real hand.

Some hands handily pick up the required grain of rice or cup of water while others don’t do anything right. Some students focus determinedly on the tiny rice grain while others nearby are giggling nervously.

Welcome to real hands-on learning in WSU’s introductory engineering course, Innovation in Design.

A student picks up a cup using a prosthetic hand made of cardboard and drawstring.
Freshmen students test their prosthetic hand designs.

This year, more than 200 mostly engineering students are taking the introductory course – the only engineering course of their freshman year. Since the course was re-envisioned four years ago, the retention rate of students continuing on in engineering programs to their sophomore year has increased significantly. The course is taught by Professor Renee Petersen and Olivia Reynolds, a Ph.D. student in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.

The course was revamped with the aim of keeping more students in engineering and helping them be more successful as they move through their undergraduate years. As part of the course, the instructors purposefully and methodically introduce students to the very factors that have been shown to keep students in engineering. Among some of the critically important activities for success, students meet with upperclassmen who participate in activities outside the classroom, such as engineering clubs and internships. They learn about participating in undergraduate research and are taught about important college resources, such as the tutoring and career services centers.

“Those are the things that if students get involved in, they’re less likely to drop out,” said Petersen. “As their courses get harder, they will have friends who support them.”

A model bridge is balanced between two barstools with a bucket hanging from it.
Students test the strength of their wooden truss bridge.

In the weekly labs, the students also do plenty of hands-on work – as a team and individually. Besides the prosthetic hand, they also build and test a wooden truss bridge, a rubber-band powered car, and a six-foot tall paper tower that has to hold a pound of butter.  In addition, they give three group oral presentations about their designs, write a report and present about an engineering grand challenge, and complete lab activities on engineering concepts such as circuits, pump performance, beam deflection, and simple water filtration.

In the weekly lecture, students receive an introduction to each of the engineering disciplines with visitors who are professionals in the field. They also learn about soft skills such as how to prepare a resume, prepare an effective PowerPoint presentation, or write an engineering research paper.

Each lab section also includes peer mentors, upperclassmen who are available to answer students’ questions and work with them. Research shows that peer mentoring is one of the top factors contributing to student success in engineering, Petersen said.

Last year, during a year of online classes, Engineering 120 provided welcome relief from lectures on Zoom, said Reynolds.

“Some of our students said that this was the only hands-on thing they got to do in their classes,” she said. “They liked being off the computer.”

The projects are meant to require a minimum amount of expense from scrounged materials – with a maximum amount of imagination. So, for instance, one student used a carrot for the body of their car.

“We give them no other instruction,” Petersen said. “It’s innovation in design, and they’re definitely innovating.”