Dr. Andrew Sloboda, Assistant Professor at Bucknell University, is a 2021 KEEN Rising Star. The following is taken from his interview with Edmond J. Dougherty, Retired Professor of Practice and Director Engineering Entrepreneurship, Villanova University.
Born and raised in Canada, Andrew Sloboda spent a month of his youth every summer in Manitoba visiting his grandparents.
His grandfather ran a concrete company and, though not an engineer, worked with large machinery and hydraulics. To Andrew’s delight, his grandfather was also constantly cobbling together something fascinating.
Those summer adventures triggered Andrew’s interest in making “things.”
His path from making things to formal technical training was further guided by his father, a medical physicist. This led to studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta, then the University of Toronto for his Master’s and then, across the US border, to the University of Michigan where he earned his PhD, met his soon-to-be wife, and fell in love.
As he was finishing up his PhD and trying to decide what to do in his career, his wife suggested he take a course in Engineering Education.
He resisted. She insisted.
Today he admits that because of his wife’s wisdom, he ended up falling in love again – this time with teaching engineering.
Together, they moved to rural Pennsylvania and a position at Bucknell University. With just over 3,500 students, Bucknell was very different from the large schools Andrew had previously attended, the smallest of those being the University of Alberta with nearly 30,000 students.
However, these changes were no problem. With his great education, love for teaching, and his calm demeanor, Andrew fit in very quickly with Bucknell faculty and students.
Dr. Sloboda’s students have described him as “chill.” When told this, he laughed and said he just tries to be open, accessible and transparent. His goal is to be in close communication with all of his students.
To achieve his communications goal, he uses different strategies to structure the classroom: he establishes a two-way situation that involves active participation by the students, where they do not just sit and listen to lectures.
“I tell the students at the outset of my classes that I have lots of opportunities to talk to them," Andrew says. "I'm at the front of the room, I grade their assignments; I have lots of channels of information flow to the students."
"But what really makes a class great is when they have information flow back to me. I tell them participating in class is important. If there's a question, if you're not sure about something — raise the issue! I also have students conduct conversations amongst themselves.
"Having all those things in the classroom space is what makes that a good learning environment.”
Beyond the classroom, he checks in with each student several times a semester with an informal survey about the progress of their learning and how to make the course better. He also makes sure the students know he is available to them.
“I let the students know I'm an accessible person. I tell them, I'm learning just like you. I'm really not a scary person. Oftentimes a big obstacle for students to come to office hours or to admit that they don't understand a particular concept is that they think it is a hindrance to me, but I explain that it is part of my job.”
And it is a part of his job that he loves, because he enjoys helping students.
Erin Jablonski, Associate Dean of Faculty at Bucknell, has said that Dr. Sloboda has a “commitment to Authentic Learning.”
When told that, Andrew smiled. “Authentic Learning includes discussing examples in class and working through projects that are related to something in the physical world that students can connect with. Authentic Learning includes examining something meaningful in their own lives and then being able to do technical analysis on that thing.
“I do a lot of examples in my classes and I very carefully curate those examples to try to pick topics that aren't abstract. It drives student engagement and helps them learn.”
Students design and create a rollercoaster simulation, applying what they’ve learned in the Dynamics class. It is fun and motivating. It also relates to a practical real-life application.
Dr. Sloboda makes sure the project does not just involve technical problems, as there is nothing authentic about a pure Physics exercise. Instead, he requires the student team to consider other, non-technical concerns, such as the economics of the rollercoaster ride. Can a very safe coaster be built at a cost that will make a profit for the owners, be affordable for riders, and still be wildly exciting?
Though a simulation, the rollercoaster project is basically a case study. The students have all been on a rollercoaster of one sort or another. They know what's going on heading into the project.
“I wanted the teaching of Dynamics to have more of a design component," Andrew explained. "It's easy for Dynamics to seem like a repackaged version of physics and for students to feel they’ve already learned it. But with the rollercoaster project, it is a chance to see how engineers use dynamics and design together. This is a case study that students are familiar with.
“The students are placed in a small group and asked to design a rollercoaster they think would be fun and safe. They are also asked to give a first order approximation of what the costs would be. Part of the project is to apply the Dynamics principles they’ve seen in class. The students are required to examine theory and perform hand calculations.
"As a supplement, a rollercoaster simulation software package is provided. ‘NoLimits’ is a simulation tool for rollercoaster dynamics. It allows students to design and build a virtual rollercoaster.
“The teams compare their calculations with the NoLimits simulation. If the simulation does not agree with the team’s expectations, they try to understand why. Several students told me the exercise was important for them to see. The students recognize that they can design something real and with the skills they’ve gained, they know they can now do something with their knowledge that's interesting to them."
“In class we talk about different coasters and coaster features. We discuss, for example, how to plan for a loop. But the project design is up to the student teams. There is an amusement park relatively nearby (Knoebels) and we’ve had some field trips for students. We’d go out there and ride some coasters and pick out features to include in their simulation.”
According to Andrew, many other variables are uncovered during the project. “That project-based activity is a natural place where all of those things can be in play and students see how they organically interact.”
Without the complexity and authenticity of such a practical project, the technical knowledge students gain can too often be compartmentalized by students as just another academic physics exercise never to be considered for serious application. But with authentic learning Dr. Sloboda believes the students will not only understand the technology today, but will make the connections to recognize opportunities throughout their careers.
“The ultimate goal is for the students to be thinking, ‘Where else can I apply this technical information I'm learning?’ They will know how to apply their knowledge."
That's two of KEEN’s 3C’s right there: Curiosity and Connections.
Chaos is a big part of Dr. Sloboda’s research. He is trained in non-linear dynamics. His research focus is Chaos Technology used for practical engineering purposes.
“It is an area where there's a lot of promise. It can be used to do damage detection or parameter change detection. A lot of my research has been focused on using chaotic signals to interrogate structures and to try to locate and quantify structural defects. In some ways, there's a lot of math and theory, but it's also fun. I had a student this past summer where we did experiments on cracked beams using chaotic signals to do the damage detection.”
Chaos is different from random numbers because, in spite of its name, “chaos is a well-defined system. We can define it as an iterated map, or an ordinary differential equation. It's well defined mathematically. But if you look at the time trace of one of the variables in the system, it's going to look random. It really takes looking at a lot of variables in a higher dimensional space and many samples of a particular variable to see the structure in a chaotic signal.”
At Bucknell, Andrew was very interested in continuing to improve and gain knowledge on enhanced teaching methodologies, so he was very pleased to be introduced to KEEN.
He participated in some on-campus KEEN related activities that dovetailed well with his teaching style. He was particularly interested in learning best practices for engaging students and ways to expose students to issues beyond technology to expand their horizons.
“KEEN really resonated with me and matched my outlook on teaching.”
Whether it is classroom techniques, authentic project development or education research, it's “exciting to accept the challenge to push the boundaries of what we know and find new and better ways to deliver engineering education.”
“It's an organic process for me," Andrew said. "I'll connect with faculty over some of my teaching practices, or I'll connect in regard to mentoring younger faculty. Often topics will come up that relate to my KEEN activities, and I will point out the connection to KEEN. I’ll explain how it helped me and suggest that others get involved.”
Andrew feels he brings value to the classroom by being prepared and organized. Having the classes and projects run smoothly increases the clarity of the materials he covers and makes the most of the time he has with the students. He also shows respect for the students by efficiently using their time.
With his authentic learning approach, Andrew takes students beyond the textbook. Throughout the semester he exposes students to a variety of soft skills and explains how such skills will help them throughout their careers. “I'll spend classes talking about creativity. How do we approach this problem? How can this technology be useful? What value can it create?”
Andrew has found that many engineering students feel they either are or are not creative. He rejects such categorizations and helps the students who do not feel creative to understand that there exist many easy-to-use techniques they can employ to produce unique ideas and solutions. He sets aside time in the classroom to help students grow their creative skills. Stimulating such growth is one of his key teaching goals.
Each student in his program learns they can grow as a person and as a technologist. He explains to the students that they should never feel like they are locked in a box. He helps them realize that they can keep improving throughout their careers.
Dr. Sloboda continues to improve his teaching skills through the use of KEEN’s Engineering Unleased site. “I visit Engineering Unleashed and look at other people’s cards [an online template for faculty and staff to share lesson plans, modules, and more] to see what's out there based on what I am currently teaching. There are a lot of good ideas out there.”
Andrew has also found value in using Engineering Unleashed and KEEN to connect with folks who can share opinions, ideas and are often interested in collaboration. “I've crossed paths with several people in the context of both of those organizations in different ways and made connections which are helpful for research and general support. Right now on one of my educational research projects, my collaborator is Sarah Jane Wodin-Schwartz at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a former Rising Star awardee. That's a connection that I would never have made without being involved in KEEN.”
“Next in my career is trying to make tenure here at Bucknell," said Andrew. "This involves continuing to improve as a teacher-scholar by balancing innovative and effective classroom activities with dynamics-based and educational research. One project I’m really excited about is the design of an app that helps students practice drawing free body diagrams. I am doing that research with Dr. Wodin-Schwartz and her collaborators at WPI.”
In regard to using the funds from his KEEN Rising Stars award, Dr. Sloboda plans to “investigate how well concept-based learning (e.g. concept testing, Eric Mazur’s peer instruction) transfers to problem-solving and design-based scenarios with additional context/complexity. In general, I’m interested in how we as instructors can help students filter/abstract complex scenarios so that they can see which concepts apply and make reasonable assumptions.