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Doing and Understanding

Engineering professor's classes meld technical material with service

By Elizabeth Wilkins Article published November 26, 2007

Mandar Dewoolkar
Mandar Dewoolkar, assistant professor of engineering, is a winner of the Kroepsch-Maurice Teaching Award. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Mandar Dewoolkar's teaching is not dramatic — drama is hard to come by when elucidating the complex engineering analysis of earth materials — it's just effective. "It is hard to motivate students while teaching difficult material. It is hard to be creative," he says.

So while the assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and winner of a 2007 Kroepsch-Maurice Award for Teaching Excellence's classroom style is short on gimmicks, it is rich in the kind of attentiveness and responsiveness that inspires students to respond to him in kind.

During a recent session of his undergraduate "Geotechnical Design" course, Dewoolkar glides smoothly from podium to projection screen to student desk. He elicits classroom discussion with gentle persistence and subtle humor, drawing out and then deftly handling questions, comments and "ingenious ideas" from even the most reluctant students. The subject at hand is a technical discussion of a method of limiting equilibrium of slope stability, hardly cocktail party fodder, but the give and take is lively.

When things get a little too lively and chatter breaks out among the students, Dewoolkar pauses and calmly says, “O.K., now everyone is talking at once. It must be time for a break.”

“We're having a discussion to exercise our young minds,” one student responds.

Another student asks, “Can we talk about our feelings now?"

Dewoolkar doesn't miss a beat: “You can talk about what you did for Halloween, tell a joke, or talk about your feelings," he says. The respite is short but effective; Dewoolkar soon returns to work.

Later, when students joke again about sharing their feelings, Dewoolkar segues into a discussion of their service-learning projects by saying that “critical reflection” is an important part of learning.

Engineering answers
Reflection and service are also crucial parts of Dewoolkar's teaching. He values rigor and theory, but he also wants his students — even undergraduates — to apply their knowledge to practical problems. He sees doing as a path to knowing. Or, as a Chinese proverb Dewoolkar quotes in a recent paper puts it, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

His philosophy fits nicely with new priorities within his school. The civil and environmental engineering program received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support curricular changes that prepare students to adopt systems approaches to define and solve complex engineering problems. Service-learning is at the core of this effort.

Dewoolkar's geotechnical design students work on semester-long service-learning projects in groups of four or five students, using historic structures in Vermont to analyze various engineering problems. They collaborate with community partners from site visits to final presentations, which range beyond engineering to take in historic preservation, societal needs and economic factors.

Students have worked on structures with issues related to foundations, retaining structures and slope stability. This year, one group tackled the deteriorating walls at the formal gardens at Shelburne Farms. They found that the walls have suffered due to great lateral earth pressure and almost a century of weather, buckling and breaking apart by turns. As part of the analysis, students collected soil samples using hand augers and analyzed them in the laboratory. The group is now preparing a detailed report for Shelburne Farms that will include design recommendations to solve the problem along with cost estimates.

This semester's other project sites are the Old Dairy Barn at Shelburne Farms; Addison Town Hall; and the monitor barn in Richmond.

Engaging outcomes
Students appear to enjoy the work. Dewoolkar said that last year many students volunteered during formal course evaluations that they liked the service-learning aspects of the course best. Dewoolkar adds that undergraduates often find that these hands-on projects introduce them to the complex nature of engineering problems. The results of their efforts don't languish, either. Community partners have adopted some of the low-cost recommendations made by the students. They also use the reports as a basis for planning.

“Last year students worked on the Grand Isle Lake House. I believe that report is being used towards planning purposes by the Preservation Trust of Vermont," Dewoolkar says. "Also, a student group came up with a surface drainage plan to improve deteriorating retaining walls in the farmhouse at Shelburne Farms. They implemented the student recommendations last year.”

Dewoolkar ends this session of his class by asking the students about their service-learning projects. The students, swamped by work on their upcoming presentations, seem a bit apprehensive. Then their professor jumps in with a tried-and-true tool for student motivation: “I will bring some food.”

One student says, “Great, a party!”

Another says, “This is sounding better all the time.”