Peter H. Radziszewski
Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering
What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
The courses I teach are essentially design courses, so I organize them around design projects, and then I’ll walk the students through the design process. I’ll have fairly challenging competitions, like an intensive two-hour design session in the conceptual design course (MECH 292), for example. For this, students have to design something from scratch in teams of four. At the end of it, everybody is acquainted with one another, and everybody is talking—which is actually the most important part in a way, as it can be difficult for students to do that on their own. So my strategy for engaging students is really to foster their interest through competition, challenge, peer pressure, and teamwork.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
The evaluation is built around the design process, which, in a nutshell, consists first of defining a problem and the ways to solve it, then evaluating them and detailing and building the best one. So we’re looking at progress reports, a final report, short presentations, and how students do in the competitions themselves. The students submit the results of their efforts rather than a report per se, and though it is graded, it also “feeds” them and allows us to see how they’re coming along. We also have peer evaluation, where most of the grade is individualized from a team grade based on three elements. First are criteria the students defined as teams at the beginning of the term, kind of a team commitment statement. Then there are design notebooks, in which students record their thoughts, research, inspirations and ideas in the context of their team. And last is a continuous team evaluation, so we know what’s going on from week to week.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
In the conceptual design course, I give one or two lectures and some readings about team dynamics, so that students can learn that different people have different motivations, different personalities, different strengths and aptitudes. The key is to be able to assess a team’s strengths and weaknesses, so they know what to work on or compensate for. I underline that design is essentially a system and that the individuals doing design are actually part of that system. This is how 20 teams working on one problem will still come up with 20 unique solutions for it. So it is important to understand the role of people’s different perspectives in this process, to know that not everyone will come up with the same solution, but that there will still be a solution, and they will still be a part of it.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
Philosophically speaking, engineering is itself design, and the methodology of design, in my mind, is something that all engineers practice—they define a problem, they look at the alternatives, and they assess whether they have enough information to evaluate them. And this here is the essence of research because if you don’t have enough information, you have to find it, right? You have to develop, you have to experiment, and everything else then falls underneath that umbrella. Only once you have that knowledge can you evaluate the concepts and build the prototypes. For literature review specifically, we have the librarian come in to give the students a good overview of the resources and how to do literature review, which can be helpful for second-year students. I consider this research in the sense that we’re developing the methodological tools to address questions.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Besides taking the Teaching & Learning Services course design workshop, I recommend that new faculty see their classroom as an experiment and use the same approach to see what works and what doesn’t, how they can evolve and improve their course. Also, I have always tried to involve undergraduates in my own research, through the teaching, the projects, or the mineral processing stuff. It helps connect what they are learning to the research. So I think it’s important that we don’t impose this artificial divide between our undergraduate students and the research because there’s a real continuum there.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
It’s a design course, so basically just let your imagination and enthusiasm lead you down the path because it’s not like a math course with a unique solution at the end of the road—you don’t know where you’re going. Instead, here you are being evaluated on your consideration of different possibilities. Enthusiasm and imagination are vital for this.
Why do you teach?
Because I do research, and research is a continuum. Part of research is communication, and what is teaching but a form of communication? Even at a conference, you’re essentially giving short courses. You have an outcome, you have an input, you have people you want to communicate to. Teaching a course is, in my mind at least, the same thing. The audience is on a different level, but still, it’s the same process. You’re basically taking somebody else’s knowledge, mixing it with your own experiences and knowledge, communicating it, and seeing what the outcomes can be.