Sunday, September 16, 2012

Open Ended Problems in Mechanics of Materials

Problem solving is one learning activity that is extensively employed by engineering educators. “Problem-solving is defined as a process used to obtain a best answer to an unknown or a decision subject to some constraints” (Mourtos 2004). Through problem solving students learn to apply the theoretical equations in both hypothetical and real-world scenarios. Assigning problem sets provides students the opportunity to test their understanding of the theory and concepts. The type of problems assigned to students addresses various levels of thinking and outcomes. Traditionally, problems are designed with given parameters and students are required to determine an unknown quantity. The solution usually involves substitution of known values to an equation to solve for the unknown parameter. Problems of this type are said to be “close-ended.” Close-ended questions usually have a unique answer and the procedure of obtaining the answer is limited or straight-forward. Close-ended problems address lower levels of thinking (based on Bloom’s taxonomy) like “remembering”, “understanding” and “applying” and some higher mode of thinking like “analyzing”.

To address higher levels of thinking like “evaluating” and “creating” and transformative outcomes experienced in the real-world, “open-ended” questions should also be included in the problem sets. Sobek and Jain (2004) emphasized the need for open-ended problems. “Employers look for engineers who are effective at solving open-ended problems. Engineering accreditation demands evidence that students can tackle open-ended problems proficiently.” Open-ended problems address considerably the student outcomes on “an ability to recognize, formulate, and solve civil engineering problems” and “an ability to engage in lifelong learning.” Open-ended questions are usually ill-defined and there may be more than one valid approach to obtain the solution. As a matter of fact, the solution may not be unique because of varying assumptions made regarding some parameters. Mourtos (2004) noted in their study that “traditional exercises (close-ended) found in most engineering texts, although useful, do not adequately prepare engineering students for real-world problems. Students seem to have great difficulty approaching these (open-ended) problems; however, they also seem to enjoy the challenge and perform reasonably well if given proper guidance.”

Problem : If you were to install a
steel Z-purlin, which arrangement
would you choose to maximize the
moment capacity of the section?

In the problem sets in my structural analysis course, open-ended problems are given. The problem shown about a Z-purlin is related to analysis of beams due to unsymmetrical bending which is similar to a problem by Singer. Deciding on the most effective set-up of the Z-section whether upright or inverted would require application of concepts in moment of inertia, equilibrium, bending moment and elastic bending stress analysis. There are various ways of determining the more efficient arrangement of the Z-section. You may compute which arrangment has the larger moment capacity. You can assume a moment and compute the maximum stresses and compare.


Mourtos, N. et al. (2004). “Open-ended problem solving skills in thermal-fluids engineering,” Global Journal of Egg Education, UICEE

Sobek, D and Jain V. (2004). “The Engineering Problem Solving Process: Good for Students?” Proc.2004 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference & Exposition

NOTE: An updated version of this article - "Challenging Students' Thinking Through Open-ended Problems" was published as e-notes in The Philippine Engineering Education (Vol. 1, No. 1, Sept 2013) - the official news magazine of the Philippines Association for Technological Education (PATE).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Using Visual Gobbets in Teaching

A gobbet is “an extract of text, a passage of literature, an image, a cartoon, a photograph, a map or an artifact provided as a context for analysis, translation or discussion in an assessment” (Chan 2008). “The student’s task is to identify the gobbet, explain its context, say why it is important, what it reminds them of or whatever else you would like them to comment on” (Biggs and Tang 1999). Gobbets are usually used for assessment.

I used "visual" gobbets in my class in Theory of Structures and Earthquake Engineering. Here are some examples.

In my first meeting in Theory of Structures-I, as my review of basic concepts in Statics and Mechanics of Deformable Bodies, I displayed an image of a beam bridge  and posed the problem to the students: “if you are required to design a simple beam bridge to cross a river, what information would you gather to accomplish your task and how would you use the information?

A Gobbet on Simple Beam Analysis & Design
 The responses from this gobbet include span length, beam material, weight of the person(s), number of persons crossing the bridge at one time, shape and size of the beam, soil type at the beam ends and cost. After listing their responses, I asked them on how the items in the list will be used in the analysis and design of the beam bridge. From this exercise, the students were able to reflect and learned about the relationship of the listed items to concepts in Statics and Mechanics of Deformable Bodies.

A beam bridge can be modelled as a simple beam with length, L and the weights represented as concentrated loads
Analysis means solving for reactions and maximum internal forces – moment and shear
The type of material will specify the material strength (allowable stresses) and mechanical properties (modulus of elasticity)
Designing the beam means determining the shape and size of the beam
• Various types of design can be done for comparison (strength, cost)

Another gobbet in my Earthquake Engineering class was included in an exam to assess the students’ understanding of structural failure due to earthquakes. This is an exercise on post-earthquake evaluation usually conducted by structural engineers (ASEP) after the occurrence of an earthquake. The students are shown photos of a building damaged due to earthquake. A description of the observed damage is also given. The students are required to assess the condition of the building based on the photos and description and recommend the appropriate post-earthquake posting (Safe, Limited Entry or Unsafe).

 "Safe", "Limited Entry" or "Unsafe"?

The third example of a gobbet exercise which I called “Scaling an Earthquake” was applied in the Earthquake Engineering course. One of the learning outcomes of the course is familiarization with the PHIVOLCS Earthquake Intensity Scale (PEIS). A series of photos were displayed to the class and the following problem was posted: “You are tasked to determine the intensity of the earthquake using PEIS. Assign the intensity scale for each photo. Explain your answer.” In this exercise, the students have to read and understand carefully the descriptors for each intensity scale in PEIS and relate them to the photos. 
Rate the Intensity Scale of this Earthquake
Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, McGraw-Hill Open University Press
Chan C. (2008) “Assessment: Gobbets”, Assessment Resource Centre, University of Hong Kong []: Available: Accessed: 8/27/2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What is a soft story?

One of the requirements in my undergraduate course (STEQUAK) at DLSU is a group research related to earthquake engineering. The group has to present their topic orally using multimedia - powerpoint slides and a short video. The group of Gian Panaligan, Jerome Sy, Jospeh Oropel and Janelle Ong created a video about their topic, "How can we improve the seismic performance of a building with a soft story?" The language used is Filipino and their acting is very natural. A good story about a "soft story." Watch and enjoy.

Our last meeting - STEQUAK (Earthquake Engg) Class

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Theory of Structures: An Introduction

Here is a powerpoint slide show of my lecture on the introduction to the Theory of Structures.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Model Popsicle-Stick Bridges of the Bridges in Asia

Chaotianmen Bridge (China)

In the recent Civil Engineering Society Bridge Building Contest, students from various civil engineering schools in Metro Manila were challenged to create popsicle stick bridges based on a segment of an actual bridge that can be found in the Asian region. The judging of the bridges took place last March 10, 2012 at the De La Salle University, Manila. It was a marvel to see the creativity of the students. There were model bridges that were really awesome and created meticulously following the photo of the actual bridge. The winner for the best design was the model of the Chaotianmen Bridge (China) submitted by the students from TIP. Marvel at the popsicle stick bridges below.

Asahibashi Bridge (Japan)

Asahibashi Bridge (Japan)

Ayala Bridge (Manila, Phils)

Zhejiang Road Bridge (China)

Merdeka Bridge (Malaysia)

Minamikawa Bridge (Japan)
Wanxian Bridge (China)

Quezon Bridge (Manila, Phils)

Dhamra Bridge (India)
Best Bridge Design

Monday, February 20, 2012

Meeting the Gurus of Outcomes-Based Teaching & Learning

John Biggs lectures at TIP (2012)
"The key to  'constructive alignment' is that all components in the teaching system - the curriculum and its intended outcomes, the teaching methods used, the assessment tasks - are aligned to each other. The teacher's job is to create a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes, " says John Biggs, psychologist, educator and author and the man behind 'constructive alignment' and the SOLO taxonomy.

I met John Biggs and his wife and co-author, Catherine Tang at the International Conference on Outcomes-Based Teaching and Learning (ICOBTL) held on Feb. 16-17, 2012 at the Technological Institute of the Philippines, QC Campus. Biggs and Tang were the keynote lecturers at the ICOBTL which was attended by about 500 teachers, professors, university presidents and heads from CHED, DepED, PATE and PTC.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, I have been learning about outcomes-based education (OBE) and I have learned much from the papers of Biggs and Tang. Their rationale for constructive alignment (CA) which is an example of OBTL is quite noble. Biggs say CA is "concerned only with improving teaching and learning" unlike the other proponents who apply OBE for accrediation purposes.

 Applying OBE is not something new. The new terms  like 'constructive alignment', 'intended learning outcomes' or ILO, 'teaching and learning activities' or TLA and 'assessment tasks' or AT should not intimadate the teacher. OBE or OBTL or CA has been practiced by teachers consciously or unconsciously. What the teacher should do is simply to understand the concepts and refocus his/her teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks to address learning outcomes. With OBE, there is more focus on what the teacher and student should do. This is the challenge in OBE especially for engineering educators. How can you effectively apply OBE in the teaching of a technical course with a lot of theory like 'Engineering Mechanics' or  'Theory of Structures.' I am still groping for effective strategies aside from traditional classroom lectures and I will report on this in the future.
Catherine Tang, John Biggs, my co-faculty at DLSU - Alvin Chua and I

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Outcomes-Based Education: As I see it


I was tasked by the dean and department chair to be a "champion" for outcomes-based education (OBE). The main motivation for this is that OBE may be used in the accreditaion of engineering programs in the Philippines following the accreditation practice (ABET) in the US.  But how can I be a champion when I don't have any idea about OBE. I attended a series of seminars conducted by DLSU educators but somehow it was difficult to comprehend the topics because the seminars combine UBD, OBE, Transformative Learning, Student-Centered Learning, etc. So I have to do my own readings of scholarly papers on OBE by experts like Spady, Biggs, Rogers and Feldman especially those related to ABET and engineering . After reading these papers and reflecting on them, I came up with a diagram (shown above) of  "the OBE Framework" as I understand it. Here are some of my thoughts about OBE.
  • OBE is a “student-centered learning philosophy that focuses on empirically measuring student performance, which are called outcomes.”
  • Outcomes are clear learning results (knowledge, skills, values, behavior) that learners have to demonstrate at the end of significant learning experiences.
  • Outcomes follow a hierarchy: (a)University level: the mission and vision defines the expected graduate attributes, (b) Program level: Program educational objectives (PEO) describe what graduates are expected to attain within three to five years after graduation, (c) Program level: Student outcomes describe what students know and can do after graduation, (d) Course level: Learning outcomes describe what the students know and can demonstrate at the end of the course.
  • Defining the outcomes is the key in curriculum and course design and delivery. The teaching methods, leanring activities, topics and assessment tools must be aligned with the outcomes.
  • At the end of the course or program, an assessment must be done to determine whether the outcomes were achieved or not. The purpose of asssessment is to provide a continuous process of planning, measuring, analyzing results, and using the results to make informed decisions that, preferably, lead to improvements.
Now that OBE has started to be come a framework in the teaching-learning process in the university, how will this affect me and my colleagues? I have been in the academe for more than 20 years (five years at UP and 17 years at DLSU). When I reflected on the OBE paradigm and my present teaching practice, I can see that I need to make a few adjustments:
  • I must explain to the students at the start of the term that they should address the learning outcomes in all their learning activities - readings assignements, exams, etc.
  • I must always refer to the syllabus and make sure that my teaching-learning activities and assessments (exams, assignments, etc) are aligned with the learning outcomes.
  • I must use various learning activities to develop the students' interest in the classroom. Available technology (youtube, internet, etc.) must be explored.
  • I must explore creative ways of delivering course content. I should  deliver only the most important content in lectures and the other related content through other means (e.g. internet).
  • I must regularly assess on whether the learning outcomes are being achieved through seatworks, recitation and homeworks. These assessments need not be part of the final grade but must be used to improve the teaching-learning process during the term. If I observe some weakness in a specific topic, then I need to make adjustments on that topic.
  • I must design an assigment on how I can assess the "skills, knowledge, behavior" of students related to the course and relate to real world tasks to achieve "transformational" outcomes.
Moving from traditional methods to outcomes-based takes time. As a start, an OBE syllabus must be designed by the faculty. Then gradually the faculty should change his/her teaching practices (e.g. combine various activities in lectures) and eventually teaching based on OBE becomes natural. This I hope to achieve.