Lego and Super Soakers: How a Tufts University Professor is Changing Education

Posted by Owen Smithyman on Jan 12, 2016 10:39:08 AM
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Professor and Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Dr. Chris Rogers has a strong commitment to effective teaching techniques. At Tufts, he has spearheaded a number of new educational directives, including learning robotics using Lego bricks and learning manufacturing by building musical instruments. His teaching work extends from higher education down to the elementary school level, where every year he talks with over 1000 teachers around the world about ways of bringing engineering education to the younger grades.

Video produced by Lego.

Professor Rogers worked with Lego to develop RoboLab, a robotic approach to learning science and math. RoboLab has already been used in over 50,000 schools worldwide and has been translated into 15 languages. We spoke with him to find out what it is about Lego and nontraditional teaching methods that has him enthused.

Why are you so excited about Lego?
Mostly because if you want to teach engineering, you ideally want to have people spend a lot of time conceptualizing and solving the problem and not a lot of time on actually building the product. A building system like Lego works really well in that regard because students can spend most of their time conceptualizing the problem. It’s also great for brainstorming because it’s really easy to take apart and put back together — as opposed to wood or something like that, where once you start to go down one road, it’s kind of hard to change it.

Did you play with Erector Sets or other engineering toys when you were a kid? When did you discover Lego?
My brother was the big Lego fan in the late 70s. I played a lot with making my own — with just about everything. I took everything apart that I possibly could and put it back together, usually wrong. I played a lot with electrical components and built many things that didn’t work. I couldn’t understand why my solar cell couldn’t power the light bulb that powered my solar cell. It should work! This finite efficiency stuff is for the birds.

What was your learning experience like in elementary and high school?
Starting in middle school and high school, I lived overseas in Austria and I went to the American school there. The school happened to be really, really good at math and science, so it opened up all sorts of opportunities. It was also right around the beginning of computers that didn’t require a building to house, so we had access to our own IBM 5100s. I started programming in 8th grade, and the science and programming fit together nicely for engineering.

Why did you end up pursuing Mechanical Engineering?
In applying to colleges, the choice was between becoming a professional musician and becoming an engineer. I was a classical violinist, and I’ve always been very interested in the engineering of musical instruments — why they make noise — and so mechanical engineering had the acoustics portion of it. It was basically between Stanford Engineering and the Northwestern School of Music, and starting salaries influenced my choice to go into engineering. That, and I wasn’t good enough on the violin to become a soloist.

What was it like learning to be an engineer in college, given your current endeavors and the fact that everyone learns differently? What was it like learning in the way that they were teaching at the time?
Well, I succeeded through the academic program. I mean, I got a PhD at a good school and got good grades, so obviously I was good at the system that existed — I’m good at taking tests — so it meant that I still had fun. Stanford, when I went, had a bunch of things that were open-ended—design problems, capstone design, etc., so there was a fair amount that you could actually mess around with on your own. My favorite course was the machining class, where I learned how to turn and mill.

What led you to be interested in nonstandard approaches to engineering education?
It’s been individual students, ever since I started teaching. I started teaching really young — I actually taught 8th grade math. In watching how people learn, you start to see that there are people who don’t understand, and then something clicks and all of a sudden they get it. And it affects them not just in whatever you’re teaching them but across the board.

There was one student who I remember here at Tufts, who was a C student, and he wasn’t doing that well. But then he found robotics and that completely changed everything. He started going to robotics competitions, and he ended up going to MIT for graduate school and getting a good GPA. Somehow the ability to make his own robots caused him to get really get excited about learning and to realize why he wanted to learn the other material.

Get Students Excited About Heat Transfer!

So was it the act of physically building the robots or doing the calculations, or something else?
It’s hard to tell because I wasn’t doing any psychology studies back then, but certainly the hands-on nature was huge, the competitive nature was huge, and the problem-solving, physical part played a large role. About 15 years ago, when we started getting more heavily involved with Lego, we found that we were saying a whole bunch of things that we didn’t have any evidence to show were true. We talked about kids getting more excited, enthused, etc., and we didn’t have any evidence for that. So that’s when we started the doctoral program in Engineering Education, which we brought in to measure and demonstrate that. It’s a much more scientific approach to the question “How do you know?” And that spawned a whole bunch of changes in the way I teach.

What’s the most traditionally boring thing that you teach in an exciting way?
The problem is that I think all of this stuff is pretty cool. If you’re looking at, say, Fluid Mechanics, when you teach Fluids, the basics of Fluids are highly mathematical. There’s a lot of math, a lot of equation-solving in it. Students, in their initial foray into Fluids, often don’t have the opportunity to see the advantage of all the math. They’re just filling out problem sets.

So on one of the days, I walk in, put a Super Soaker on the table, and give them half an hour to model the Super Soaker. If I’m going to pump it 10 times, how far will it shoot? I’ll be standing at that distance. Once they’ve modeled it, we compare all the models, and of course, at this point they don’t know enough about friction, so I never get wet. But they understand the role that friction is playing, so that’s how we start talking about friction. There’s nothing that’s actually boring — it’s just shown in a boring way.

How do you approach giving tools to students who have never been trusted to be hands-on before?
Ha! Yeah, that’s sort of a big question. My first thought is to just let them play with all the tools, let them see, and take the chance that they might hurt themselves. But then you see a person pushing wood through a table saw — that’s not something they should figure out experientially because it’s kind of a one-shot deal when you lose your arm. So we’ve played around a lot with developing environments where people police each other, there’s help whenever you need it, and you can use tools after going through an approval process.

What are some things that you do in your Mechanical Engineering classes to ensure that students learn the material, that you would like to see more of in higher education?
Nonstandard projects. We always talk about people trying to get the “right” answer, which would be a solution diversity of zero — everybody having the same answer — as opposed to giving a problem where people can come up with their own answers.

One year in my robotics class, the problem was to build robots that play acoustic instruments. And so there were robots that played the bagpipes, the trombone, the mandolin, the piano, the xylophone, the ukulele. Because there are all these different solutions, they’re all learning different skills, and then they teach them to each other.

So instead of trying to have everybody learn the same information, how can we develop courses where everybody learns different information and learns how to talk to each other and leverage each other, just like we do in the business world? Why do we want everybody to learn the exact same thing in Fluids class or in Controls class or whatever? Wouldn’t it be far more powerful if we taught them how to talk to one another but then had them specialize and have their own expertise and have different projects?

Isn’t the idea behind having everybody learn the same thing that by going through a class, you come out knowing a set array of things? Does it not turn out that way, or is it not actually useful?
It’s not that things aren’t useful. Everything is beneficial, but the question is opportunity cost. If I only have you for a couple of hours in class, is the most effective thing for me to teach everybody the same set of skills? Or is it more effective for me to teach you how to communicate effectively with each other and leverage each other’s skills?

If I have a very creative person, do I necessarily want to teach them how to follow instructions? Or do I want to teach them how to work effectively with this other kid who’s not very creative but is very analytical and very careful? Together, they can make something that’s far better than if I try and force both of them into some mold in the middle. It’s not very groundbreaking, right? I mean, businesses have done this for the last 5,000 years. You’d never hire 10 mechanical engineers to do the work of electrical engineers, computer engineers, and everyone else.

Thanks, Chris!

You can read more about Professor Rogers here.

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Topics: Education