Course Enhancement Through Student-led Experiments to Assist with Program Accreditation

Course Enhancement Through Student-led Experiments to Assist with Program Accreditation


Jose A. Saez, Ph.D., P.E.
Assistant Professor

Department of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science
November 15, 2005


This work presents a case study in which a Civil Engineering course improved through the incorporation of experiments that were designed and conducted by students. The use of student-led experiments was essential to address program accreditation requirements from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. This effort also incorporated useful elements learned during the 2003-2004 LMU Pedagogy Workshops.


Water Resources Planning and Design (CIVL406) is a course that senior Civil Engineering students take during their last semester at LMU. After teaching this course in the spring semesters of 2003 and 2004, it was the instructor's assessment that students would benefit from the incorporation of an experiment designed and conducted by the students. The main objective of this project was therefore for students to independently develop and perform an experiment in the field of hydrology during the CIVL406 course.

Adding an experiment to the course would help reinforce the theoretical concepts taught in class. More importantly, it was the instructor's assessment that the students should take the lead in developing and conducting the experiment. This would help foster the students' creativity and decision-making abilities. The approach would also help motivate students and contribute to their professional growth. The incorporation of student-led experiments would also be essential for the Civil Engineering Department's efforts to renew its accreditation with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which identified during the last campus visit in 2000 the need to prove that students can design and conduct their own experiments. The next ABET visit is scheduled for 2006.


The project required careful development, preparation and coordination of the experiment, which was difficult to fit in a course with a large number of topics and limited time and which does not normally incorporate an experiment. In order to overcome this hurdle, the course was reorganized through the use of backward planning for reflective teaching (2003-2004 LMU Pedagogy Workshops). This technique helped identify desired course objectives to organize and prioritize topics. This also helped develop a detailed schedule of every single lecture in the syllabus for maximum effectiveness of class time. Further organization was achieved through coordination with related courses taught by other colleagues in the Civil Engineering Department.

In terms of the experimental approach, there are two ends of the spectrum that are commonly used:

Structured Approach: Instructors are fully in charge of the experiment, which is used to verify known physical laws. This approach is best suited for lower division undergraduate students and a first introduction to experimental testing to learn instrumentation. (Wankat and Oreovicz, 1993)

Unstructured Approach: Students are in charge in exploring a given empirical topic, where the solution is not known a priori. This approach is better suited for upper division students, and the instructor provides little or no input (Jumper, 1991; Alexander, 1978).

As described below, the approach on this project was in the middle of these two extremes, but tended to lean toward the unstructured approach with an emphasis on students' independent thinking with minor instructor supervision.

Since a major portion of the course focuses on hydrology, the students were asked to develop the experiment using an existing rainfall-runoff simulator in the Fluid Mechanics Laboratory (Refer to Figure 1). Students were then asked to review the device's capabilities and to begin developing an experiment of their choice to test theories taught in class. In this case, the students chose to test the theory of unit hydrographs, which is based on linear superposition principles. The students tested such theory by obtaining the resulting runoff from a simulated storm of a specified duration, and by using these results through superposition to compare with the runoff obtained from a second simulated storm of different duration and intensity (see Figures 2 and 3).

The twenty one students in the class were divided into groups of three students to analyze the results of the experiment and write laboratory reports. The instructor tested the unit a priori to ensure that the basic mechanisms worked, but no thorough testing was conducted in order to force the students to take on the challenge of the "unknown." The instructor provided some advice and direction, but encouraged independent thinking and decision-making by the students to foster creativity, team cooperation and professionalism. For example, the students had to decide how to choose the rainfall intensities and durations, as well as how to best measure storm runoff and rainfall intensity in the rainfall-runoff simulator, and to analyze results and problems encountered. The instructor's role was one of "outside facilitator" to help the groups resolve differences in experiment design. It also helped for the instructor to be open to the students and level with them, which provided a class environment that helped empower the students and encouraged them to take charge. This concept of "openness to students" was borrowed from the 2003-2004 Pedagogy workshops.

The student-led approach poses the risk that it may result in experiments with poor results. Rather than a drawback, this can be viewed as a benefit, since it encourages careful analysis of results and troubleshooting, which are essential elements to improve future experiments and stimulate students' independent thinking and learning.

The implementation of the experiment took place as follows:

1/2 lecture for introduction to apparatus, quick demonstration, safety issues and assignment

1/2 lecture to let students discuss and finalize details

2 lectures to conduct 2 experiments to test superposition principle

Draft lab reports due 1 week later so allow instructor to provide comments

Final lab reports due 1 week later (groups of 3 students per report)


Figure 3 shows results of the experiment. The green curve shows the actual 2-minute unit hydrograph, while the pink curve shows the hydrograph derived from two superimposed 1-minute unit hydrographs that are lagged and properly proportioned. The experiment indicated good fit in the rising/falling hydrograph limbs, total water balance and center of mass. However, the experiment provided a poor prediction of the peak flow, which was underestimated considerably. As mentioned, earlier, this poor result is actually considered beneficial since it encouraged students to analyze reasons for the deficient results (e.g., storage effects in the rainfall-runoff simulator).

At the conclusion of the project, students were asked to complete a survey to provide the instructor with feedback on the laboratory experience. On a 5-point maximum scale, the survey provided the following results:

Experiment helped with the concepts learned in class (4.9)

It would be helpful to incorporate additional experiments in the course (4.0)

It would be helpful to incorporate additional field projects/tours in course (4.6)

The survey results suggest that the students welcomed the experiment experience and that they would also embrace a field study/experiment with real-world implications. For example, it would be beneficial to link the experiment to the study of the Los Angeles River, which once passed near LMU in the Ballona wetlands. The students were not as enthusiastic to have a second experiment, because they recognized the difficulties associated with incorporating a second experiment into a class with no assigned laboratory time, and already squeezed with teaching topics.

Additional assessments of the project were conducted by LMU Civil Engineering faculty to satisfy the ABET accreditation program requirements. The scores on a 5 point scale are summarized below.

CIVL 406 students must show ability to:

Apply math/science (4.5)

Design/conduct experiment (5)

Design a system/component (5)

Identify/formulate/solve problems (4.8)

Understand ethical responsibility (NA)

Communicate effectively (5)

Knowledge of contemporary issues (3.7)

Use techniques/tools in engineering practice (5)

Understand work procurement & bidding (NA)

The results indicated that the project satisfied the ABET outcomes with most scores above 4. The exceptions were outcomes satisfied with other courses were the efforts of this project did not apply (NA). The "knowledge of contemporary issues" outcome was also a bit low, which agreed with the students' suggestion to link the experiment with outside activities and contemporary issues (e.g., the Los Angeles River history). This improvement will be incorporated in future courses. In addition, the instructor plans to focus further on assessing the benefits of student-led experiments in other courses. For example, various degrees of instructor and student involvement in experiments will be tested next spring semester in Fluid Mechanics II (CIVL315), which is a course that involves multiple experiments.


Besides the September 15, 2005 presentation to Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), an extension of this works has been accepted as a presentation in the March 17-18, 2006 Lilly West conference in Pomona.

Relevant Bibliography

Alexander, L. T., Davis R. H., and Azima K., "The laboratory," Guides for Improvement of Instruction in Higher Education, No. 9, Michigan State University, 1978.

Beakley, C. G., Evans, D. L., and Keats, J. B., Engineering: An Introduction to a Creative Profession, MacMillan Publishers, 5th edition, 1986.

Feisel, L. D. and Rosa, A. J., "The role of the laboratory in undergraduate engineering education," Journal of Engineering Education, American Society of Engineering Education,. Vol. 94, No. 1. January 2005.

Horan, M. and McCullough, M., 2003-2004 LMU Pedagogy Workshops Lectures.

Jumper, E. J., "Recollections and Observations on the Value of Laboratories in the Undergraduate Engineering Curriculum," Proceedings ASEE Annual Conference, ASEE, Washington, 358, 1991.

Wankat, P. C., and Oreovicz, F. S., Teaching Engineering, McGraw Hill, First edition, 1993.

Wiggins G., and McTighe, J., Understanding by Design, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1st edition, 1998.


The author wishes to thank the CTE for sponsoring and funding this project. In particular, my sincere gratitude goes to Drs. Patricia Walsh and Mel Bertolozzi of the CTE for their assistance and advice. Thanks also go to Drs. Abbie Robinson-Armstrong, Michael Horan, Mary McCullough and David Killoran, who conducted the 2003-2004 LMU Pedagogy workshops and were quite helpful.

Figure 1: The Rainfall-Runoff Simulator

Figure 2: The Principle of Superposition and Unit Hydrograph

Figure 3: Experiment Results