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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Implementation of computer programs in civil engineering tutorials

Britta Bienen
School of Civil and Resource Engineering
The University of Western Australia

In civil engineering, the solution to problems often requires computer software due to the complexity of the task. As university undergraduate degrees aim at training future engineers for the profession, it is argued that the numerical analysis programs should be incorporated into such courses. This would enable coverage of realistic scenarios whilst focussing on understanding of underlying principles and mechanisms. This advanced learning strategy is a recent development in civil engineering and therefore limited data has been gathered on student perception of this as a method for learning. Further, recommendations for good teaching practice do not address this teaching strategy. This preliminary study investigates both the teaching staff and the student perspective on this teaching method and discusses how the implementation of computer software into civil engineering tutorials can enrich the learning experience.


Introduction

Engineering problems tend to be complex in nature. Of course, an undergraduate degree begins with basic principles, mechanisms and procedures, but the content taught significantly gains complexity during the course of the degree as it prepares the students for the profession.

Towards the end of the course, the content involves analysis techniques that cannot be applied using hand calculations. In civil engineering this applies - among others - to structural analysis due to statically indeterminate systems as well as soil mechanics and foundation engineering due to the non-linearity of material response, for instance. This means that procedures which are amenable to hand calculations are rarely sufficient for or even applicable to realistic analyses. The use of numerical analysis software assists teaching of these topics in that it enables realistic problems to be solved in tutorials and assignments. Furthermore, units and assignments can be utilised to introduce students to software packages commonly used by civil engineers in industry. Thus, it serves to stimulate interest and motivation as well as preparing the students for 'real life' scenarios of professional life after graduation.

Another significant motivation for using numerical analysis software in undergraduate engineering degrees is that iterative analysis is performed much quicker. A software result can be reassessed very quickly after changing a single input parameter whereas a hand calculation takes almost as long the second time. Thus, the focus of the task is moved away from repetitive calculation to reflection, analysis and comment on the procedure and results.

At the University of Western Australia, civil engineering students are estimated to be introduced to between five to ten different numerical programs during their undergraduate degree. Of course, this depends on the student's choice of units.

This semester, the author implemented a numerical analysis program developed in house and strongly linked to current research into a final year elective unit. Without the use of computer software, the lecture content could not have been applied in the assignment but would have been limited to abstract theoretical or very simplified questions.

This has prompted a preliminary study to be carried out on the implementation of numerical programs in civil engineering tutorials. It is looked at from both the teaching staff and the students' perspective and aims at providing an overview of perceptions and issues as well as suggestions for change and recommendations for good practise.

Observations from teaching staff

Five members of the teaching staff at the School of Civil and Resource Engineering of the University of Western Australia have been interviewed on the implementation of numerical programs in their units. Various aspects were mentioned.

Motivation for implementing numerical programs into tutorials

Most 'real life' problems cannot be solved using hand calculations, so that either the problem needs to be sufficiently simplified or it can only be dealt with in an abstract way. 'If there was a tool to solve this problem with, the procedure would be...' In implementing an appropriate computer program into the unit, such a tool can be provided and the students are enabled to solve these problems. Thus, the students are trained to dealing with realistic problem scenarios.

Another motive for the introduction of software into a unit is to extend the range of computer application skills in students through the implementation of programs commonly used by civil engineers in industry. This practice orientation provides an incentive through the relevance for the profession.

In all cases, the computer program was implemented into the unit in order to relate its content more closely to the 'real world', thus make it more interesting and prepare students better for professional life.

At what stage during the degree is the software used?

Some programs like computer aided drawing packages are introduced early in the degree as these provide a tool to assist in report preparation rather than calculations and design.

However, programs to aid complex calculation processes and design tasks tend to be introduced later in the degree. This way, the basic principles and procedures are covered as well as theory relevant to more advances problems before the computer program is introduced. Some software packages may be useful to the students in preparation of their final year thesis, which is why those are likely to be introduced in third year. Thus, students have time to familiarise themselves with the program through assignments in third year, so that they are confident in using the software when they choose to apply it in their final year thesis.

Choice of program

The computer programs used in civil engineering tutorials include commercially available software packages as well as in house software. The choice depends on the purpose of the program within the unit, but also on financial constraints. Obviously, the use of commercial software requires sufficient funds to purchase the required number of licenses.

If the introduction of the program mainly aims at design and preparing students for the computer software they will be using after graduation, commercial software packages commonly used in industry are likely to be favoured.

However, these software packages tend to be complex as they aim as a range of applications. If the program is intended mainly at making complicated calculation procedures amenable for use in an assignment, a simpler program built in house may require less time to be learned, thus maximising the time available to focus on the task. In house software is also likely to be applied to topics closely linked to current research as no commercial program covering this option may yet be available.

Introduction to the computer program

All teaching staff interviewed for this study reported to have focussed on the application side of the respective program whilst also providing information on the models and assumptions the program is based on. In some units, the use of the program is directly preceded by the relevant theory, whereas in others it is a prerequisite. It is perceived important to shed light on what is 'behind the program', so that the students are able to relate input and output through theory. This way, the program is employed as a tool, not a 'black box'.

As the focus is on the program application, usually as little time as possible is spent on learning how to use the program. This maximises the time available to reflect on the theory and comment on procedures and results. This demand on time for learning how to use the program may affect the choice of software. Commercially available software tends to be more complex as it usually aims at a range of applications. However, these programs tend to be more user friendly in that they feature a graphical interface and possibly some guidance to the sequence of steps required to produce the input and generate the result. In house programs on the other hand are often targeted at a particular application. This minimises the modelling and analysis options and thereby reduces the complexity in appearance of the program. However, these custom built programs may be less user friendly.

In all cases, worked examples were used when introducing a program. The examples were chosen to illustrate the application of the software to the particular scenario addressed in this section of the unit. The assignment problem was usually very similar to the worked example.

Further aspects mentioned as important and having taken into consideration included the timeline for a particular assignment. It was found important to allow the students as much time as possible to familiarise themselves with the program, work through the assignment task and ask questions before the assignment was due. It was regarded beneficial for student learning to allow them to try and find answers to their questions themselves, explore and question theory and get accustomed to the program in their own time, just as with any assignment using traditional teaching methods and media.

Also similar to traditional teaching, formative feedback was regarded as essential to student learning.

Observations

From a teacher's perspective the use of numerical programs in civil engineering tutorials is extremely useful as it allows the application of theory to 'real world' problems. Furthermore, it can be used to introduce the students to the software packages most commonly used in industry. As this increases the students' range of skills immediately applicable in the profession, it directly increases their employability.

It is realised that some units imply high workload and pressure on the students. Therefore, care has to be taken not to overload students by introducing even more work when implementing computer software into a unit. The time spent learning the program is not available for covering theoretical content.

Furthermore, the requirement of a final exam poses potential problems when the entire unit is computer based and application oriented. Not only do the questions have to be formulated in a theoretical manner, but also the students are uncertain what to expect as the final exam differs so fundamentally to what has been done throughout the entire semester.

Student perception

Survey

A questionnaire was developed to gain an understanding of student perception of the use of numerical programs in civil engineering tutorials. The questionnaire was distributed to 15 students in a fourth year elective unit with software application and included six questions on the general use of numerical programs in civil engineering tutorials as well as a further eight questions on the particular program used in this unit. These questions were framed for students to "strongly disagree", "disagree", "neutral", "agree" or "strongly agree". Further, students were encouraged to write a few words on what they perceived as advantages and disadvantages of the implementation of software packages into tutorials.

Outcomes

Students did not indicate a direct link between the use of numerical programs and enhancement of the learning experience overall. However, students agreed that the use of programs in tutorials provided better access to the topic at hand. It enables more relevant problems to be solved, in other words that tutorial problems provide more of an idea about 'real world' scenarios than can be addressed in hand calculations. This was indicated to make the tutorials more interesting.

The use of a computer in general has become an integral part of professional life as well as the education process. Of course, it is also used for playing games and accessing the internet, for instance. From personal experience in tutoring, many students are used to using a computer and are confident with it. However, this does not apply to all students and some are intimidated by it. Although the level of confidence varied, the students surveyed here did not find that the use of computer software shifted away the focus from understanding the topic to handling the program. Although these statements seem contradictory, it may imply that the initial intimidation subsided once the program was used and the student could then concentrate on the assignment task.

Advantages in the implementation of numerical programs into tutorials were stated to be that more relevant problems can be solved, in other words that tutorial problems provide more of an idea about 'real world' scenarios than can be addressed in hand calculations.

Another advantage mentioned was that using a computer program, the student can focus on understanding the theory and its application rather than paying most of the attention on getting the calculations correct.

The potential issue that the students may not use a particular program again in their later professional life does not seem to represent a major concern or hindrance in motivation. This implies that the students do not mind learning how to use a particular program as long as it provides a useful tool in understanding a topic. Since many programs are similar, slight differences in handling are not very significant and new programs are learned quickly.

Negative perception from students referred to too few computers as the main problem. Also, computer labs are often only partially booked for a particular class, so that the environment may be disruptive.

Another concern is time constraints. Often, students are told how to use the program, but there is not enough time for them to try out the software and actually learn how to use it themselves. This way, the procedure and program options will not be questioned as much but rather accepted without critical thinking.

Furthermore, the degree of user friendliness of the program affects the perception of its merit. This is because in more basic programs, the input file has to be produced by the user directly and the structure and keywords of the input file have to be abided by. In a more user friendly program with a graphical interface, on the other hand, the sequence of input is prompted and the actual file is produced automatically.

Discussion

The use of such computer programs in tutorials of civil engineering degrees is a recent development and therefore teaching staff experience with respect to this teaching strategy is limited. Furthermore, the introduction of novel teaching methods always requires student feedback and fine tuning of the method and its implementation. This takes at least one iteration, i.e. teaching cycle.

Computer software as a tool to apply theory

The use of numerical programs aims at assisting the students in understanding the topic in making it amenable to them. Students are expected to use the respective program as a tool, not a 'computer game' which will deliver some answer that is trusted blindly. The theory has to be understood, so that input and output have a meaningful connection. It is important to keep students focussed on the practical reasoning behind the analyses that they are asked to perform. The students should feel that they themselves are making an informed assessment of the answer, using the software as a tool. They should not feel that they are asking the software simply to calculate an answer on their behalf.

Part of this certainly is to teach the theory (either in the same unit or elsewhere and defining prerequisites), but the implementation of software into teaching requires another step. The students need to see that the program applies that same theory and it needs to be made transparent how this works. Only then will they be able to verify results and comment on them, or raise questions about the theory and its application.

Unless the built in models and analysis procedures are understood, the program remains largely a 'black box', to which input is fed in and output is obtained, but with little understanding of how that output was produced. The students learn how to set up the required input and run the program, but not always do they really understand how the output is generated, which modelling simplifications and assumptions the program (option) is based on and how that affects the results. Thus, the time apparently saved on explaining the program background has a detrimental effect on the learning experience, as it will lead to the students taking a surface approach (Ramsden, 2003).

It is recommended to base the examples that are worked through in the lecture on practical case studies. This serves two purposes: To demonstrate to the students that the tool is state of the practice and capable of reproducing 'real' behaviour. Further, it adds relevance and therefore stimulates interest. Explaining the program and stepping through a worked example will also minimise potential intimidation felt by students. As in other teaching methods, this is also closely linked to welcoming questions and (as far as possible) lifting time pressure.

Providing the students with a list of common pitfalls has proved to be helpful and assisted in learning how to use a program quickly. Less time is spent identifying the mistake, which frees time for the assignment task.

Considerations in the development of assignments

Similar to traditional methods of teaching, care has to be taking in formulating the assessment piece such that students are guided through the learning process and the assignment reflects their level of understanding (Biggs, 2003). It is also helpful if the assignment can be designed such that there is not only one correct answer. Then students need to explain their approach and comment on the solution they propose. This limits potential plagiarism, encourages the students to occupy themselves with a topic and understand it.

Where possible, it is recommended to include in the assignment a simple problem to which the solution can be calculated by hand or a result can be estimated assuming reasonable simplifications. This exercise illustrates that the software is not a 'black box', but is simply applying the principles introduced previously. The students then feel able to question and verify their use of the software before attempting a more sophisticated analysis.

Setting exam questions is challenging if the entire unit is computer based, but the final exam is not held in the computer lab. Students need to know how the exam will be set from the start of the semester. The exam questions need to be relevant to the unit content but solvable without a computer. As in any other piece of assessment, the questions should be formulated carefully so that the answers reflect the student's level of understanding of the topic.

Enough time must be allowed for the students to be able to familiarise themselves with the program and solve the assignment task. With increasing time pressure and workload, the procedure and program options will be questioned less but rather accepted as given. This will favour a surface learning approach in students. Therefore, it must be ensured that the implementation of this new learning strategy does not imply too big a workload on the students. This may necessitate revision of the unit or course content.

Often, the worked examples addressed in the lecture correlate very closely to the assignment task, so that the students follow the same procedure as in the worked examples. This may still achieve the immediate learning outcome provided the assignment task requires the students to comment on the results so that their level of understanding can be assessed. However, the program capabilities and options are only viewed in the context of the particular problem at hand, such that assumptions applied may not become obvious and students may not be aware of the validity of these modelling assumptions when confronted with a different problem or context. This is one of the major pitfalls of the use of program packages. It is relatively easy to produce results, but the art lies in understanding how the program arrived at this result.

User friendliness of the software

User friendliness influences the perception of a program greatly, especially if the program has to be learned quickly and will only be used over a very short period of time. On the other hand, long term users often prefer to edit the input file directly as they know exactly which values or options they want to change and generating a new input file by being prompted through a graphical interface will in this case take much longer. However, there are several problems associated with this, the main one being of monetary nature. Commercially available user friendly soft packages are often very expensive, and licenses in large numbers may not be affordable by the department. Other reasons include the particular topic being closely related to current research, and commercially available programs covering this topic may simply not exist yet or may not be as advanced. For some problems, engineering companies tend to employ their own in house software so that there may not be a commercially available program that is preferably applied for these situations or the software packages are too complex for the one topic at hand.

Learning environment

The venue and the number of computers available was a major factor of dissatisfaction in the students and teaching staff. The teaching environment has significant influence on student learning (Biggs, 2003) and therefore effort should be made to create a friendly and supportive atmosphere that assists in the learning process and helps focus on the task. Care has to be taken in the selection of computer lab for the teaching session as simultaneous use of a large facility by several different learning groups causes disruption. Where sharing of the venue cannot be avoided it must be ensured that enough computers are booked for the class. In a lecture, these should be close to the whiteboard and projection facilities so that students can follow the lecture audiovisually without problems.

Conclusion

Students seemed to like the use of the numerical programs, but this is not always accompanied by understanding of the topic, principles and procedures. It is suggested that this is closely related to the assignment design and question formulation. However, this issue is not inherent to advanced teaching strategies, but applies equally to traditional teaching methods.

From the feedback available it was concluded that most students felt that the implementation of computer software into the unit improved accessibility of the topic. It also enables realistic problems to be solved, which stimulates interest. Moreover, students were confident in using the computer programs.

Students did not see a direct link between the implementation of computer software and enhancement of the learning experience overall. However, this may at least partly be due to the fact that they have no comparison to a similar teaching situation without the use of computer programs.

From the student perceptions and the teaching staff observations recommendations could be formulated to encourage good practise in teaching incorporating numerical programs as an advanced teaching method in undergraduate degrees.

Acknowledgements

The author gratefully acknowledges the support of a Teaching Internship and an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship of Australia.

References

Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (2nd edition ed.). Buckingham, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Ramsden, R. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd edition ed.). London: Routledge.

Author: Britta Bienen is a PhD student at the School of Civil and Resource Engineering at the University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia. She obtained a Bachelor of Engineering with Distinction from Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland, and graduated as a 'Diplom-Ingenieurin' from Aachen University of Technology, Germany. Her PhD project focuses on the modelling of offshore jack-up drilling rigs and their shallow spudcan foundations in three dimensions. Britta was awarded a Teaching Internship at the University of Western Australia for 2005, during which she tutored and lectured parts of first, third and fourth year units.

Britta Bienen, Centre for Offshore Foundation Systems, School of Civil and Resource Engineering M053, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009. Email: britta@civil.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Bienen, B. (2006). Implementation of computer programs in civil engineering tutorials. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/bienen.html

Copyright 2006 Britta Bienen. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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