Transforming My Lab

Using the Entrepreneurial Mindset

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Using the Entrepreneurial Mindset to Transform My Lab

by Aaron Sakulich, Associate Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

My mind was wandering during the meeting with the administrator.

Mind_on_autopilot.jpgI had rehearsed what I was going to say so many times that I was able to recite it on autopilot. As I finished describing the changes that I had made to my laboratory course during the winter of AY 21/22, I realized the administrator was staring at me.

“How on earth did you do all that?” they asked. “You must have been very busy.”

Those words disconnected the autopilot. I was stunned.

“Oh,” I replied. “Busy? Well, it… Yes? Very busy.”

For the rest of the day, I was haunted by the interaction. Not just my inarticulate response, but the administrator’s question.

The previous year, I had completely rewritten the five laboratory experiences for my course during our three-week winter break. Between the omicron surge on campus and renovations to the departmental labs that were running behind schedule, the conventional put-the-cylinder-in-the-load-frame-and-try-not-to-fall-asleep labs just weren’t going to happen. 

How had I done it in such a short time period? 

I remember my department head suggesting I could make video recordings of the experiments and have the students watch them, but that sounded somehow more boring than actually doing them. I remember not knowing where to start with such a large project, and with time being so short. 

After a day or two of fruitless staring at a blank Word document, it occurred to me to go over to Engineering Unleashed and check the cards. Perhaps someone had already produced laboratory activities that would be appropriate for my course content AND could be carried out remotely.

Activity Search

Where to begin?

Searching for the word “fun” returned over one hundred results, but almost all of the returns were “fun” as part of the words “function” or “fundamental”. And at the time, “covid” and “coronavirus” returned no results, although that has since changed. 

But the keyword laboratory provided hundreds of returns, one of which caught my eye as I had met the first author listed on the card, Heather Dillon, at a KEEN workshop in 2019. Their card described in-person lab experiments about wave energy research and the entrepreneurial mindset. Completely unrelated to what I was trying to do, but very interesting! As I read, I found my curiosity, creativity, and confidence coming back to me.

Course Based Undergraduate Research + Mindset (EM-CURE)

Course Based Undergraduate Research + Mindset (EM-CURE)

These materials were developed for a summer course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) that had a focus on building student entrepreneurial mindset (EM). The class topic was small-scale wave energy systems, but the materials could be adapted for any research focus.

Then I found a card by Ranen McLanahan that described how heat transfer can be taught as an ongoing story in which students must survive the depths of an Arctic Winter. Sure, it had nothing about materials properties, but could it be adapted to my course? Nothing came to mind, but I really enjoyed mulling it over.

The Great Alaskan Heat Transfer Adventure

The Great Alaskan Heat Transfer Adventure

What if a course in heat transfer was presented as an ongoing survival story set in the middle of an Alaskan winter? Use this scripted story that is voice-acted, set to music, and rendered with basic animations as a series of 2-3 minute weekly videos. Each week pits characters in the story against different heat transfer problems. The problems, discussions, and misconceptions from characters in the story are explored during the course's lectures, in-class demonstrations, and homework problems.

Building the Idea

By the end of reading that heat transfer card, I had decided that my lab experiences would take the form of students replying to letters from a reclusive millionaire that wanted to erect a building in downtown Worcester. The plot would change each week as the millionaire encountered new challenges to his aspirations – and needed the team to provide new data. 

So the first lab would focus on student teams organizing themselves as a company, with a charter, positions, a logo, and so on. And I could adapt one assignment from the mix design portion of the American Concrete Institute’s textbook. But what else?

That’s when I stumbled across "Area 51 Artifacts" by Michael Lancia.

Area 51

Area 51 Artifacts

A mob of patriotic citizens has successfully stormed Area 51. While they did not find any captive extra-terrestrials, they did recover a large number of unusual looking material samples. Your group has volunteered to evaluate the materials and make a judgement on whether the artifacts are extraterrestrial or not! This project based learning module is designed to help students connect material properties, tests, and types. Students, working in small groups, order a limited amount of tests based on a short description of an unknown material. They then compare the results of these tests to the properties of known materials and judge whether or not the values are reasonable.

In this card, students have to identify unknown materials stolen from Area 51 solely by using material property data. Of course! This would work perfectly! Aliens in Worcester might be a bit of a stretch, but instead I could have my eccentric millionaire ask students to select the best aggregate for concrete based solely on the information provided by five corporations. 

And I can cultivate their entrepreneurial mindsets by ensuring there’s no clear-cut, correct answer by asking, "How do you balance the different prices, environmental impacts, and performance of the five aggregate options?" If your students are like mine, questions with ambiguous answers may heartily annoy them, but get them thinking more deeply.

Later in the term, after discussing wood, plastic, and metals, the millionaire could assign each team a material, and tell them they can ask about any three material properties they want. Excellent! The Area 51 Card was an inspiration from which the lab activities basically appeared fully formed - I would have to come up with my own list of materials and associate material properties, but the mechanics of how to implement the activity were quite clear.

Transformation Complete 

So how had I been able to transform my lab class so quickly? 

I wasn’t able to find off-the-shelf options perfectly suited to my course among the cards on Engineering Unleashed. But I was able to find inspiration and ideas that could be adapted with a bit of work. 

I should have started from an entrepreneurial mindset approach in the first place: Creating value for my students (and myself!) was easy once my curiosity brought me to the Engineering Unleashed card system and I was able to connect my course objectives to what other people were already doing. 

Naturally, I created a card with the three activities that I designed as well. Let me know in the card’s Discussion box if you’re curious enough to peruse the card; I’d love to see your work as well.

You're Hired! Three Activities for a Construction Materials Course

You're Hired! Three Activities for a Construction Materials Course

Students are assigned to teams of four, though smaller or larger teams would work. Although delivered remotely, these activities could easily be used as in-person, in-class exercises. All the information needed for the modules are contained in this card, including relevant grading rubrics and supplementary information. A written report is the primary instrument for evaluating student attainment of learning outcomes, which are specified for each individual activity. The modules are extremely flexible, and can be adapted to whatever content a user wishes. Incorporate your own local flavor!

About the Author

Aaron Sakulich

Aaron Sakulich, Associate Professor, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Aaron's research focuses on developing new, more durable materials for use in infrastructure, which will lead to a lowered maintenance burden, improved user safety, and a reduced environmental impact. He is also very much involved in WPI's off-campus projects system, running sites in Panama City and Reykjavik. Aaron has served as an Engineering Unleashed Community Catalyst.

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