The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineHands-on, real-world education
Higher Learning

Hands-on, real-world education

By Margaret M. Mitchell

inner workings of the mind

Celso Ferreira, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE, is an assistant professor in the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia. He teaches classes that focus on water resources engineering and the effects that water-related weather events, such as hurricanes, can have on civil engineering infrastructure.

Knowing that there needed to be a change in the way civil engineers are taught so that they can become creative problem solvers who can conceptualize and implement novel and inventive engineering design approaches, Ferreira decided to change the way content was delivered in some of his courses. He adopted what is called the flipped classroom model in which classroom time is devoted to practical activities and answering questions, and students view the lectures on their own time. Having this extra time in the classroom has been good for him and his students: It allows him to form relationships with them, and it affords them the time they need to explore in a stress-free way the correlation between current engineering methods and the challenges to these methods. 

With the goal of providing an environment in which students can develop their problem-solving skills, Ferreira has spearheaded two educational initiatives that employ project-based, hands-on learning as well as video and social media: the Mason Educational Watershed and OutSIDE Classroom: Teaching across America and the World. Both support the Mason Impact initiative, a separate university-wide initiative that affords all students opportunities to participate in “high-impact activities that support their development as engaged citizens and well-rounded scholars who are prepared to act,” according to GMU’s website.

The Mason Educational Watershed on GMU’s Fairfax campus is a “living laboratory,” says Ferreira. The watershed has two uses: connecting theory and engineering methods to reality and providing hands-on, project-based learning experiences, according to Ferreira and a website dedicated to the watershed. 

Knowing that there needed to be a change in the way civil engineers are taught, Ferreira decided to change the way content was delivered.

During their time at the watershed students observe, collect, and monitor atmospheric conditions, such as rainfall on the watershed and stream flow. While these two activities have their merits, what is most important about this living lab is that activities are designed to develop and deepen “critical thinking on the effects of urban infrastructure and civil engineering structures on watershed response and flooding,” Ferreira states. 

All the data that are generated are incorporated into projects in the water resource engineering courses he teaches. Besides producing valuable scientific data, the projects are an excellent way to involve undergraduate students in professional, real-world activities and research.

The goal of the OutSIDE project, Ferreira says, is to engage students by providing “virtual field trips” across the United States and other countries. The premise is simple but necessary for today’s tech-savvy students. Marshalling the power and appeal that technology holds for many young people, he records short videos that “introduce new concepts, describe engineering methods in action, propose homework questions, and enable critical thinking.” Using video, students have explored watershed concepts from the top of the continental divide at the Rocky Mountains, studied the effects of precipitation events on the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, and discussed the implications of climate variability in the portion of California’s water supply that comes from Lake Tahoe, he says.  

Ferreira states that the “videos pre­sent a great link for topics we study in class.” In addition to the videos, Ferreira has opted to add social media to his teaching “toolbox,” which he says has let him “connect with his students in a way that goes beyond classroom time.” Facebook has features that allow him to share current content with the students related to the class topics because the content goes directly into their newsfeeds. Furthermore, he maintains an Instagram account that, he says, “offers a little glimpse of my personal life and its intersection with water resources engineering.” He also uses Kahoot!, a game-based learning platform, to post interactive quizzes. And Ferreira is also working to develop an online educational coding repository on GitHub (an online “storage” site where people can share programing codes) that will be dedicated to water resources engineering. 

He firmly believes that an engaged student is a student who is learning, and a student who is learning is the professional who will make the necessary difference in restoring and improving the world’s urban infrastructure.

Getting to this point has been quite the journey for Ferreira. Like many, he began his teaching career by using PowerPoint slides and writing important concepts on the board. And although he was armed with passion and enthusiasm, he says he soon realized that, despite his efforts, many of the students were not as enthusiastic as he was; they just wanted to take the class, get a decent grade, and move on. Now, however, student engagement and interest—inside and out of the classroom—are up, and he credits much of that to the addition of social media and videos as well as having a flipped classroom. Although he would not describe himself as a “social media person,” he says that it is definitely worth the struggle and time for the returns he gets on his investment.

The same goes for adding real-life, hands-on projects to the educational lineup. “Real-life events are key to student engagement,” he says. He firmly believes that an engaged student is a student who is learning, and a student who is learning is the professional who will make the necessary difference in restoring and improving the world’s urban infrastructure, which is desperately needed. Ferreira says students feel much more motivated if they are able to see the link between what they are studying in the classroom and the real-world cases that are close to them. 

Do you have an innovative program for reaching and teaching today’s technology-savvy civil engineering students? If so, email [email protected] using the subject line “Higher Learning.”        

This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Civil Engineering. 

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