Flipping the Classroom

Beginning in 2012, 16.90 Computational Methods in Aerospace Engineering shifted from a traditional lecture-based course to one in which students actively engage with faculty and teaching assistants through problem-solving, small group exercises and project work. In this section, Professor Karen Willcox describes how the pedagogy in the course shifted and how she experienced these shifts as an instructor.

Flipping to Improve Student Learning

Our primary goal in updating the pedagogy in 16.90 Computational Methods in Aerospace Engineering was to improve student learning. We also hoped to create an environment that would allow some flexibility for students to participate in activities that might require some time away from the classroom (e.g., participating in an engineering competition, presenting at a conference, etc.).  To achieve these goals, we flipped the classroom and required students to complete readings and problem sets prior to class. We then leveraged their preparation to utilize class time for problem-solving, small group exercises, and project work.

Making Use of an Online Platform

To help students adequately prepare for class, we began making extensive use of an online platform. Initially, we used a homegrown online platform, and then switched to using Residential MITx platform when that became available. We used the online platform to post notes and readings for the course. In particular, we modularized the notes for the course in such a way that they corresponded with lectures. We then created subsections within the lecture notes to make them more amenable for online reading. Interspersed with the lecture notes and readings were simple assessment questions. These questions encouraged students to interact with the materials as they went along.

Transforming In-Class Time

To help students adequately prepare for class, we began making use of an online platform. 

— Karen Willcox

Because students came to class having already engaged with the course materials, we were able to use in-class time for recitation-style interactions. Instead of lecturing for the full session, we focused on talking through the difficult parts of the theory and methods they had read about before class. Flipping the classroom also created opportunities for problem-solving in class. We would often set a challenge and the students would work individually or in small groups to write code to solve the problem.

Broadcasting Class Sessions

Another major shift in the pedagogy in the course involved broadcasting class sessions live over WebEx. We did this so that students could choose to participate remotely if they were involved in activities that would further their learning (such as presenting at conferences), but that would take them away from our physical classroom. In essence, we wanted students to be able to augment their educational experiences without binding them to campus every week.

Unfortunately, we haven't seen the full impact of this effort because we are but one class, and students typically take four or five classes. If their other classes keep them on campus, they are unable to fully leave campus for any substantial amount of time. Even with that restriction, we have had students participate remotely in some of our classes. I think it’s a valuable model and one to strive for, but, of course, for it to work effectively, a large number of instructors have to get on board so that students are truly free to engage in learning activities beyond campus.

Experiencing the Pedagogical Transitions as an Instructor

We were lucky in that we received financial support from the Office of Digital Learning and from the School of Engineering to flip our classroom. This allowed us to hire teaching assistant support, which is really what made the pedagogical transformations feasible. But even so, transforming the pedagogy in 16.90 Computational Methods in Aerospace Engineering wasn’t easy.

For instance, it was challenging work to convert the class notes to a format that would function well online. It was also challenging to create online assessments. In fact, I feel I never have as many of these questions as I would like. Every year, I want to create more, but the reality is that it takes a long time to create thoughtful questions. You really have think carefully about what incorrect options to include in multiple choice prompts so that you can adequately reveal students’ misconceptions.

Finally, I was used to going into a classroom and delivering a great blackboard lecture on a particular topic. I learned it can be overwhelming to walk into a classroom and not know how exactly how the session will go because it will depend on how well students grasped the material they read on their own. This took some getting used to. It’s harder to plan for these types of sessions. You have to be willing to be flexible and you need to be prepared to facilitate the session in several different ways depending on students’ learning needs.