Structures Lab

This page offers insight into my teaching experience within Civil Engineering. I focus on how this experience has impacted my current path, as well as what I have learned about working with students and curricular materials.

Personal impact

Prior to attending Virginia Tech, I was a student at Auburn University. There, I earned my bachelors in Civil Engineering in 2011 and completed additional graduate coursework in Civil Engineering (with a focus in Structures); during the program, I realized that Civil Engineering was not the best fit for what I wanted to do with my career.

Part of what led me to that decision were my experiences outside of disciplinary research. During my years at Auburn University as a graduate student, I held a dual role as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) and as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA).  Having the opportunity to try on a teaching role is part of the reason that I chose to pursue my new path at Virginia Tech. Once I began teaching the undergraduate structural analysis lab, I realized that something I found important was teaching engineering while gaining a greater understanding of HOW exactly to do that as a result of my research.

I took the opportunity to co-teach the undergraduate structures lab (CIVL 3610) for the Civil Engineering department during three separate semesters. Going through multiple iterations of the same labs afforded me opportunities to learn more about my own teaching styles, try new methods, and improve not only my own labs, but the lab manual itself.

Working with students

During my three semesters of co-teaching, I learned a lot about the content that I was teaching – structural analysis and the mechanics of materials. What I did not anticipate was learning about was myself, my students, and the fact that how I was teaching affected what they were learning. I also learned a few things myself over the course of those semesters. Initially, I discovered that there was a need to differentiate myself from the undergraduates. I was only a year or two older than the students I was teaching, so I dressed in business casual on the days that I taught so that my students would not automatically think of me just as a peer; wearing t-shirts and jeans would not have given that impression. I tried to present myself as a courteous professional who treated my students with respect, and for the most part this respect was returned.

However, one particular incident will forever stick out in my mind. One day in lab, a young gentleman, who later claimed he simply forgot my name, snapped his fingers to get my attention and called to me from across the room as “girl.” When this happened, a veritable flood of responses flashed through my mind, but I ultimately decided to go with my initial reaction of shocked silence. I could not form any verbal response to that.

Other students in the class were not as hampered. They took it upon themselves to correct the language of their peer, defending my status as a graduate student teaching assistant, instead of “girl.” They were the ones who reminded the gentleman of my actual name for future reference as well.

This incident continues (even now) to serve as a personal example of how far we still have to go in terms of creating a more welcoming environment for students who don’t fit society’s assumption of what an “engineer” looks like, and what “engineering work” looks like as well. It is a reminder that the work that I am doing now revolving around Disability could potentially disrupt the current perceptions of who is an engineer  and who is a client for a course’s service project.

I also spent time helping students who were experiencing anxiety about their lab report scores. I realized that the majority of the students were unprepared to figure out how their lab grades fit into the larger overall course grade. I created a short presentation to explain the breakdown of points, so they would no longer feel like an unanticipated grade on a lab report would ruin their final grade in the course. I also held office hours; not many students took advantage of this opportunity, but I do find it interesting to note that the two students who came by to ask the most questions pursued graduate studies themselves!

Working with the curriculum

Lab Manual

During my time as a graduate teaching assistant, I approached my supervisor about the need to update the lab manual that our department used for the structural analysis course. At that time, it was approaching twenty years old. At the end of Spring 2012, with the approval of the department and the professors in charge of the lab in the past year, I conducted a survey of the students in the lab to assess their needs and where the manual could be improved.

 I spent time during the Summer of 2012 working on editing the lab manual, specifically focusing on the introductory front matter. I also added an additional section to the front matter, one that the students had identified as a major need – Chapter 6 Sample Report. Most students coming into Structural Analysis had completed their required composition classes, but few had any experience with writing a technical document. Providing an example for them was seen as one way that the course could model technical communication for civil engineering students.
We also were able to make the lab manual available online for students, as many would avoid carrying around the hard copy of the document, even if that were the only way to have access to the material during class. It in now available to all students in the class through the course site as well as the complete printed document, so that those who are already coming to class with smartphones, tablets, and laptops would be able to open the documents on devices they already had with them. Those who chose not to bring the devices to class and also chose not to buy the manual could still print out a copy of the exercise for the lab day.

Rubrics

For each lab that I was assigned to teach, I also had to grade. I developed rubrics for each assignment to give feedback on the technical content of the lab reports. As I also had greater experience with technical communication (due to my interest in English and History, not to mention my enrollment in a Technical and Professional Editing course and time spent as a tutor in the Miller Writing Center), I was also responsible for grading two of the four technical communication reports each semester. These technical communication grades were used as part of the Civil Engineering department’s assessment of skills for ABET as well as Writing Across the Curriculum requirements.

My background with the Miller Writing Center led me to recommend that more time be spent at the beginning of the semester to prepare students to write technical lab reports. Many students understood the engineering concepts being presented as a part of the lab, but were unable to communicate that understanding. Spending more time on the actual mechanics of writing involved having a round of peer reviews as well as reviews from the course GTAs before the first lab report was due in order to get feedback before any grades were assigned. This change has been incorporated into the structures lab as part of the introduction to the course.

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