Engineering Education

Hands-on learning is regarded as one of the most effective ways to improve and stimulate student learning in engineering education. However, there are many disciplines in engineering that are not as amenable to ‘hands-on’ in the traditional sense of “bringing a sample tool from the laboratory or taking students to the hands-on laboratory”. One such discipline is ‘Engineering Hydrology’ or ‘Water Resources’, a typical senior-level elective course in most undergraduate civil engineering curriculum. For gaining the highest level of student learning in such a course, it is almost impossible to implement hands-on activities in class on a frequent basis since the subject of the topic (Hydrology) is often a larger-than-classroom watershed involving topics such as rainfall-runoff transformation, land use/land cover, terrain features and complex instrumentation that are difficult to be replicated in a smaller laboratory. The conventional approach to incorporating ‘hands-on’ learning concepts for such a course has therefore been to organize field trips that consume significant time away from regular lectures due to the detailed planning that is needed for a successful execution.

SASWE’s contribution to engineering education involves an extensive use of information technology and mobile computing platforms. Recently, there has been an adaptation of a Google Earth-based Hydrology education tool for place-based and hands-on learning on hydrology concepts using a campus watershed. With several decades of high resolution image of the earth’s surface, Google Earth has now evolved to a powerful tool for visualization, analysis and learning of environmental concepts that are spatial and geographic in nature. HydroViz is one such Google Earth-based tool, developed by a team of researchers at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which allows student-driven active learning of hydrology concepts. By leveraging a campus watershed located very close to the classroom at Tennessee Technological University (TTU), HydroViz adaptation by SASWE allowed for a hands-on and place-based learning experiencing for students without the need for time-consuming field trips. By using Wi-Fi internet connectivity, students applied the adapted tool while located inside the campus watershed to pose key hydrology questions and seek answers in a hands-on manner that would otherwise not be possible in the classroom. In essence, the adapted tool was successful in fulfilling the notion that – when you cannot bring the watershed to the classroom, bring the classroom to the watershed.

Figure 1. Screenshot of HydroViz showing the typical front page that is on display when the student user activates the tool. Note: the GIS layer of watershed boundary and outlet is ‘turned’ on using the bottom panel. The above screen shot is the adaptation for TTU from the original version developed by Habib et al. (2011) and is available online at:

Another area where SASWE has made a contribution to engineering education is using multimedia and film. A freshman course has been designed (at TTU titled CEE1020 “Connections to Civil Engineering.”) In such a SASWE-designed course, groups of four freshmen students engage in a semester-long project to create movie documentaries on a civil engineering infrastructure, problem, or concept for a movie-making competition. These movies are made entirely by students, with continuous guidance provided by SASWE members (movies are posted on; search for “CEE1020″ on search field of youtube). The student-made movies are all rated by a panel of independent judges toward the end of the semester to adjudge the best movie-making group. The goal of this course is essentially to instill active learning by empowering students to satisfy their curiosity independently. SASWE research on engineering education has shown findings at a recent American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) conference that such empowerment (through movie-making) actually improves learning of physical concepts and improves retention in the undergraduate program for STEM disciplines. The experience gained in directing students to create documentary movies is now being used for K-12 students (particularly for high school science projects) to raise public awareness of satellites and the potential vulnerability of water resources infrastructures due to man-made changes to land cover at local and regional scales.