Using the Body to Teach Engineering Concepts

Interview with Janet Tsai, October 2013

by Kai Austin '15


Janet is a contributer to EngineerGirl website

Q: I heard you were doing research in yoga, engineering and education?

Kind of.  What ended up happening was I had this idea to teach engineering through the body. Specifically I thought it would be a good idea to teach Statics through the body because it takes a lot of forces and moments and those types of things are very tangi­ble. So I won a grant from the National Science Foundation to try and teach this. My experiment happened last fall,  (2012), where I partnered with an instructor in the mechanical engineering department here at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) where I go to school. What we did was we added a recitation section onto an existing lecture.

As you can imagine, CU is a lot different than Olin. It is a big school and the classes are lecture based, simple chalk talk and the instructor stands in front as they give content. What we tried to do was change that a little bit and give the students a better learning experience. We modified the format of the class where instead of 3 lectures a week, we gave them two lectures a week and one recitation. These recitations all involved different kinds of examples. We tried to make them active, so all the students would be getting up, walking and talking to each other.

A big area of research in the curriculum of engineering is active learning, so we developed two kinds of active learning experience for the students.

One kind used examples from the body. The other kind used 3D objects they could interact with, kind of play around and evaluate forces and momentum. Interestingly overall, by the end of the semester,  I collected all this data,  talked with and interviewed the students, and conducted pre-post surveys.   We found, however, that the students were generally resistant to both kinds of examples regardless of whether they were inside the body or outside the body. What I started out trying to do was understand if teaching examples inside the body would help students or not, but those results are kind of inconclusive because we saw at once, whether the body helps or hinders, it did not affect any of the active learning that we were trying to get them to do.

So now, I'm switching my research focus and we are trying out a bunch of different things to understand what is going on in their minds, why it is so hard to get them motivated to do these particular real world situations. That is where my research has gone since I started.


Q: What do you mean by body? Specifically, like physical movement?

Sure. What's cool is that your body has a lot of interesting linkages. So in Statics we talk about pin connections, right?  A good analogy to that is a knee joint.  A hinge joint is kind of like a pin if you imagine your knee can still rotate in two directions, but it cannot go in other directions. Another example is a ball and socket joint; your hips and shoulders are socket joints. They enable motion but obviously they resist force in those directions because your arm cannot come out of its socket.  Those types of things.

Or a simple example. If you talk about the weight of your arm creating a moment  in your shoulder, you can use that as a fundamental example instead of a pipe on a wrench or something.


Q: How did you come up with that?

I guess it took a while. I had a lot of different ideas.

One thing that happened to me was that after I graduated Olin, I worked for a robotics company for a few years. And I liked my job, it was kind of interesting, but at the end I felt frustrated and wanted to try something different. Therefore I quit my job, moved away from Massachusetts and came back to my home state of Colorado. Here I had a lot of time to think about stuff, and at that point I was already trained to be a yoga teacher.

I was teaching a lot of yoga, I was doing a lot of yoga, and I thought it was really interesting because yoga teachers talk about forces a lot, but they do not use the technical words because they don't know them.   Where with engineering, they know the technical words, but they do not apply them to real life situations all the time, something that people can really relate to. So I realized one day, oh, they're talking about the same thing, like what we are trying to talk about in the classroom is the same thing as what the yoga teachers are talking about in their classroom, just using different words.

So I thought it would be really interesting, even powerful to try and combine those things and say hey, engineering and science were developed to model the real world, but we often get away from that and forget that it is applied and tangible.  For me, learning Statics was hard. The first time I remember taking the class and being really confused about what are these conditions; I could not even picture it.   So I thought it would be helpful to see these physical things and be able to interact with them and really understand them - particularly since the textbook examples were based on things that just didn't make sense to me.

If you look in a text book, those problems are often written in a way that does not make sense. You would not have a lever pulling on a random post for no reason, but that is what a lot of the problems are like. Based on all that, I decided to write this proposal to get the funding to see if I could do this experiment.   In general though, I would say the experiment was kind of a failure - or at least the way we structured it that year did not work. I have a lot of ideas on why and how to make it better. But that is definitely something on the back burner. I am not really pursuing it right now.  Maybe one day in the future you'll see some of these better examples in a foundational text book!


Q: Examples as in different languages (terminology)?

Yeah. For instance, I remember one week a bunch of students had the choice of doing a problem about a robotic arm or their own arm. The problem about doing your own arm talked about modeling a push-up.   It dealt with the moments and forces in your shoulder as you lower yourself down, what changes, what are the big lever arms that are causing it to be difficult, what happens if you change axes and orientations. The students were doing some more problems like that instead of the more authoritative, removed and disconnected [problems].


Q: What are you working on now?

Now what I am trying to understand is  what students are doing and feeling at a sophomore level. Right now, there is a lot of research done on the first year of engineering.   For instance, at  most large public state engineering colleges, they've made their first year engineering experience a lot better, by incorporating a project in the first-year curriculum.  Nationwide, engineering colleges are doing many things to try and encourage the first-year students to stay in engineering.  As a result, more people stay through the first year, but then they hit the second year. For us at CU, sophomores and juniors have almost no projects. There is almost nothing that gives them a taste of real engineering, instead it is a bunch of technical courses that are problem sets.

I am trying to understand what we can do to make these courses better, especially in light of resource shortages. This is something Olin thankfully never has to face, because at Olin there is a small enough student body, plenty of instructors, really good student to teacher ratio, and all those kinds of things that are awesome. But in a large university like this, it is impossible to have so many resources. So the question is what can you do in a big lecture course or what happens to the students in that course - like how do they form study groups, how do they arrange themselves, and what can we do to support them as they develop as engineers, particularly at this point.

 SO that's what I'm doing. My research is very qualitative, which means instead of administering surveys or trying to collect specific data points, what I have been doing is a lot of ethnography.   I follow these students around, I'm observing a lot of classes, I'm talking and learning about projects that they work on together. I'm trying to do a lot of different little things to get a clearer picture of what their lives are like.

Olin is really nice because you have projects integrated the whole way. But for the more typical undergraduate curriculum at any other school, you do a project your first year and you do a big senior capstone project, and there may not be much in between except a lot of dry, technical material. So for mechanical engineering you start with Statics, and you still have to be finishing your math and science like Calculus, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra and Physics 3. After that there is Thermo, Fluids, Solids, Dynamics - it doesn't end. And for a lot of students, that is the point where they give up, because they're just not sure why they'd want to stay around.


Q:  You're a mechanical engineer, right?

Yep.   I got my degree in mechanical from Olin and then I worked as a mechanical designer and manufacturing engineer and international support-facing engineer. And now I am doing my degree in a mechanical program, but all my research is education-focused.   It's an interesting loop-hole I'm in right now where my course work was mechanical, so that enabled me to get a mechanical engineering degree,  even though my research is different from most of the other people in my department.


Q: Have you found that useful for your research or anything you have done in general?

Yeah. I think this style of research is pretty challenging because you are masquerading into the life of a student and trying to get active into their lives. It reminds me a lot of what I was like at Olin, but I also see a lot of the differences of here versus there. But it is interesting.  This problem of getting people to stay in engineering as well as keep them interested in engineering is very challenging, especially at a school like this where you are limited by resources, and where courses may even be taught by faculty who don't care all that much. It is an interesting challenge.


Q: That's funny, because I notice if people usually do switch their majors it is usually sophomore or junior year.

Yeah, usually by the time people finish their junior year, they have invested too much so they won't want to drop out at that point. And a lot of people who graduate with engineering degrees don't actually end up working in engineering because they are frustrated and feel like they don't really want to continue in the profession of engineering after 4 years of schooling that they didn't enjoy.. (this sentence doesn't really make sense, can we say it better?)


Q: This is a stereotypical question, but as an alumna, how has Olin made your life better?    What did you get out of Olin?

I think Olin gave me a good perspective on education as well as engineering.  Olin kept me excited about being an engineer and made me more critical of the environment that I was in. So for instance, at my job, I got very frustrated with the work culture and with a lot of the things that were happening there, and when no one would speak up about it.   

But since we were trained to be active in our environments and about what we wanted done, I spoke up a lot and I got a lot of other work. As a result I was much happier thinking I wanted to do something else. It took me a while after I quit my job to realize that I could actually do research in education which is what I actually wanted to do.

It's funny because I had worked on a project with Zhenya when I was at Olin, and I really enjoyed my work with her, but I never thought that I could do that kind of research.  I never made the connection in my mind that going to grad-school for that would be a possibility. It took a while, but when it finally hit me, it was like "Oh, that's a great idea." And it makes sense because it's the way we were trained at Olin as well  - know about our education, thinking about active learning, think about what type of learners we were, what activities worked and what didn't.

In a way, the whole Olin education set me up to think about education on a bigger scale and to be more critical in my research about understanding what goes on in this environment that carries over from Olin. The reason I care about this so much is because I had such a great experience at Olin.  Sometimes I think it's kind of a shame that Olin is so small, but it has to be for how special it is right now.

It's very interesting to see what parts of the Olin model actually work at a bigger institution. I know Olin has partnered with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I thought about going to UI for grad school as well. It's the same idea there  - what can a big public institution do like Olin even though it's not exactly like Olin?   I think that question is really fascinating and I hope we can keep trying to make the engineering experience better for our engineering students at these bigger schools.

In the end, I think engineering is such a valuable and worthwhile profession and I'm amazed and disappointed that it's so rarely represented that way.

Posted in: Alumni Speak, Education-Minded Oliners, Graduate School, Research