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Bringing context to the classroom

After hearing engineering education pioneer Richard Felder speak about the importance of bringing context to a problem in engineering classes, Professor Aimee Ulstad had an idea. Why not involve industry partners in her production planning and facility layout course to bring key concepts to life?

Fresh from a 30-year engineering career in industry, the assistant clinical professor of integrated systems engineering (ISE) knew she learned better when concepts were introduced with real-world context and she had a hunch students would too.

“Much of the material covered in this class is used daily in most corporations. Even if they don’t use it exactly like it is taught in the textbook, they use the principles,” she said. “It seemed evident that if students understood the importance and could learn from professionals using these methods, they would understand the concepts better.”

Recruiting interested supply chain professionals wasn’t difficult, Ulstad said. Both Ohio State alumni and other industry partners alike enthusiastically volunteered to share their time and experience with small groups of four students. During spring semester, 16 mentors participated,  representing a diverse range of organizations, Abbott, AGC Automotive, All-Clad, American Woodmark, American Red Cross, Caterpillar, GE Aviation, Greif, Honda of America Mfg., L Brands, PepsiCo/Quaker, Rockwell Automation, TE Connectivity, Ventura Foods, Walmart and Worthington Industries.

Alumnus John Seeley (’05, ISE), a continuous improvement and environmental engineer for AGC Automotive, is one of several mentors who has remained involved since Ulstad first implemented the live case study format four semesters ago.

“My senior year at Ohio State, I was an undergraduate teaching assistant in the First-Year Engineering program under Dr. John Merrill. This is where I began mentoring other students and I really enjoyed it,” Seeley said. “When Aimee asked for volunteers to mentor her students in 2015, I was happy to help out and give back to Ohio State.”

In addition to being impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and excitement, he has even shared some of their questions with company management for further discussion.

“They help generate new ideas,” Seeley explained. “Sometimes the questions that the students ask can be challenging. Those kind of questions can be a benefit to me and provide a different outlook for the company.”

Ranging from recent graduates to high-level executives, each mentor dedicates a few hours over a series of five conference calls to discuss how their company applies key class concepts. Many local mentors also invite students to visit their workplace and attend class at the end of the semester to hear students’ final presentations.

“One of the best parts is really taking our concepts in class and applying it to the real world,” said Alex Vanek, a third-year ISE major. “It really spurs a lot of passion and drive to want to study and truly know this stuff. I even take what I learn in class sometimes and pursue it further. Having that mentor really allows you to go above and beyond.”

Vanek and his peers agree that learning about operations management, inventory management, production planning and scheduling, demand forecasting and other key course concepts is much easier when you understand how they’re applied at familiar companies.

ISE major Melanie Larson’s mentor at TE Connectivity brought the differences in global economies to life through his discussion of vehicle demand. In China, for example, environmentally friendly cars sell quickly thanks to government incentives. In contrast, low gas prices in the United State are contributing to growing sales of trucks and SUVs.

“The difference in demand on a global scale is really interesting to see and I don’t think I would have understood that if I hadn’t worked with a mentor,” Larson said. “I think it’s really beneficial because when you have one company, you can get more in-depth.”

Students write five papers throughout the course, including one that can be on any topic. At the end of the semester, each group gives a 10-minute presentation showcasing how course topics are applied at their mentor’s company. So in the end, students leave the course with 15 real-world examples instead of just one.

Ulstad has noticed great improvement in student learning since incorporating the live case study format.

“Students really love it. They absorb it,” she said. “When the students know the material matters in their potential future career, they are more likely to hone in on it.”

For many mentors, Ulstad’s course is one they wish they could have taken as a student.

“If I’d had this experience as a student it would have been mind-opening,” said Carrie White, business administrative coordinator for Honda Purchasing Operations, Mass Production Packaging at Honda of America Mfg., who has served as both a mentor and presenter in the course. “Some of the stuff I’m talking about you just don’t even experience it until you’re in it. And to hear it from somebody else, twice a month, it’s pretty cool.”

Ulstad’s efforts to improve the course has been noticed by her peers and college leadership. She presented initial research about the effectiveness of the format at the American Society for Engineering Education’s conference and received the 2017 David C. McCarthy Engineering Teaching Award from the College of Engineering.

But her work to create more innovative and effective teaching and learning is perhaps most appreciated by the students who benefit from it.

“She’s not only a great professor, but also a mentor and role model,” said Vanek. “I can see how much she really cares about students, and wants to make our experience the best possible and prepare us for the real world.”

Originally published by the College of Engineering

Tags: Faculty