Small group activities on the first day of class in introductory materials science

Filed in first day of class by on October 17, 2016 1 Comment

photo of Prof DemetryMy main pedagogical objective on the first day of class is for students to see, right away, that they will be talking as much as me during the course. In particular, since team-based learning is the dominant pedagogy in the course, I want them to experience that on the first day. In addition, I want to get them excited about the course content and its relevance. I usually spend about half of the 50-minute period introducing the course content and the other half explaining the course design, with a brief activity during each of those.

Following are some activities I’ve used in recent years, usually with an enrollment of about 120 students:

  • Using mind maps and think-pair-share to elicit prior knowledge and start building a collaborative environment: Before saying much about the course content, I ask students the question: “According to your current knowledge, how would you organize materials into groups?” I distribute index cards and ask them to represent their current knowledge of materials in the form of a mind map or concept map. (Sometimes I show them an example of a concept map for a totally different topic to illustrate what I mean.) After they spend a few minutes on that individually, I ask them to turn to a neighbor, introduce themselves, compare their maps, discuss similarities and differences, and be ready to report out in 2 or 3 minutes and to stop discussion when I flicker the lights or ring a bell. The classroom immediately gets noisy! After the signal to quiet down, I call on a few pairs. (Since I don’t know student names at this point, I typically call on some students I know or anyone who makes eye contact with me.) I also collect the index cards and might show a few with the document camera. There are always interesting differences. For example, ECE majors often classify materials as conductors, semiconductors, and insulators. Students with chemistry on their mind may include gases, liquids, and solids, and then further categorize solids according to bond type. Some include natural materials like wood and stone while others do not. What’s common between all of them is that they are usually fairly limited. I suggest that by the end of the course they will significantly expand their mind map. (In fact, sometimes I have them repeat this exercise as an assignment toward the end of the course.) To finish off this activity on the first day, I show them the menu of materials in a materials database they will use during the course, which is organized into metals, ceramics and glasses, polymers and elastomers, and hybrid materials, with subcategories under each of those.
  • Triggering curiosity about materials with a think-pair-share activity: In a recent offering I was trying to develop students’ entrepreneurial mindset during the course, focusing particularly on curiosity and creating value. To incorporate that into the first day of class, I asked these questions: What is a material that adds value to your life (and why)? What material is a pain point? What material are you most curious to learn more about? I then used the sequence of individual writing-pair with a neighbor-share with the whole class, as described above. The follow-up discussion focused on introducing entrepreneurial mindset as a component of the course. I also collected their index cards and tried to use examples they were familiar with or interested in during the rest of the course.
  • “Peaking under the hood” to explain and justify the course design:  Many students might initially be puzzled by the “flipped” design of this course and the extensive use of team-based learning. To help them understand why I made those decisions, I show students some measurements of the cognitive activity of a MIT student over several 24-hour periods. (This came from a journal article in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.) The graphs have flat regions (very little brain activity) as well as peaks. I then provide a list of activities (lab, class, homework, watching TV, studying, and sleeping) and ask which resulted in active and flat brain activity. (Again I usually use a think-pair-share format, but this could be done as a clicker question as well.) Many correctly deduce that lab and homework trigger the most brain activity. I then show the measurements again, with the activity periods labeled (what the student was actually doing). For both 24 hour periods, all “class” time showed relatively flat activity. I then make the point that my goal with the course design is to make class periods look more like lab and homework activity rather than the dead zones of listening to a lecture or watching TV. I also share some of the research showing the significantly higher learning gains associated with active and collaborative learning methods.


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  1. Kristen Billiar says:

    This is awesome. Thanks for the specific ideas of how to make the first day of class more active than “here’s the syllabus”

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