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Filling Data Holes

"I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering..." (The Beatles)

Unlike The Beatles, professors in USC civil engineering Dr. Nicole Berge, Dr. Sarah Gassman, Dr. Charles Pierce and Associate Professor of Higher Education Administration Dr. Michelle Maher want students' minds to wander using Concept Mapping to further their research skill development.

This past summer, two USC civil engineering professors – Dr. Charles Pierce and Dr. Sarah Gassman – along with College of Education professor Dr. Michelle Maher, were funded by the Engineering Information Foundation to develop a for-credit course designed to facilitate the development of research skills among undergraduate and graduate engineering students. The course they developed, ECIV 490/790, also leverages support from an existing NSF CAREER grant awarded to Dr. Nicole Berge, an assistant professor in the USC Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Curriculum for ECIV 490/790 was informed by a pilot writing and publication course that Dr. Gassman and Dr. Maher offered in the spring of 2012 (ECIV 790) – designed to facilitate graduate students' development of disciplinary writing skills. The goal for that course was for each student to be able to submit a manuscript upon conclusion of the course. Within of finishing the course, three-fourths of the class had submitted or were in the final stages of submitting a manuscript.

Now, with the offering of ECIV 490/790 this semester by Drs. Berge, Pierce, Gassman and Maher, this is the first time that engineering and education faculty have fully collaborated to develop and deliver curriculum informed by both engineering content and education pedagogical expertise. Maher has a unique perspective in that her husband is an engineering project manager employed at USC and she knows from him what to ask. "I understand how their minds work and can relate to how they work in a task-oriented manner" says Maher.

These professors are tasked to show their class how to structure their literature review for a research question (RQ) – from the broadest information to more cogent supporting facts to the most compelling reason for the RQ – known as an "inverted triangle." It is cognitive psychology.

Visual organization of thought processes known as Concept Mapping was originally developed by Joseph Novak in the 1970's based on a theory of knowledge and a theory of learning. It is the relationship between information (ideas, facts, opinions, and experiences) and how it becomes knowledge (expertise, skills, awareness, and understanding). Information requires a process to become knowledge. This process begins by defining a question or a problem and then gathering, organizing, summarizing and communicating the findings. Knowledge then supports decisions that are required for action.

"Concept mapping is a methodology that creates a stakeholder-authored visual geography of ideas from many communities of interest…to produce maps that can then be used to guide planning and evaluation efforts on the issues that matter to the group." – M.Kand and W. Trochim, Concept Mapping for Planning and Evaluation, 2007.

"We take students through this process" Maher says, "by having them examine their triangles and identify where articles supporting their research question fall – broad, middle or lower level. The concept map is not representative of their whole project. It is just a map of their literature review. It's what they know and can tell you of their topic now – 'This is my research question, here's what I know about it and this is how my articles fit together.' It's an approach that helps to foster critical thinking."

Maher clarifies that an inverted triangle systematically narrows the literature so that it literally "points" to the RQ. Students use and evaluate their literature of journal articles as it relates to their ultimate RQ. Each article represents an argument. Together, multiple articles on the same subject represent a "conversation" among various groups about the topic. The concept maps structure the "conversation" in a way that leads to the RQ and supports why it is important.

"Concept Maps," Maher continues, "are a schematic representation of relationships between concepts. It is a diagram of labeled 'nodes' or 'bubbles' that represent each journal article that are linked together with directional lines (also labeled). These nodes are arranged in hierarchical levels that move from general to specific concepts, which allows a person to see the big picture and the gaps in knowledge. Providing a sense of order over the array of articles provides insight into the connection between the articles." The challenge is that as each article is "unpacked," the student must purport -- What was the main/topic in that paper that interested them? What else is important to their RQ from this article? What does this scholar(s) have to contribute to a discussion on the RQ?"

Learning outcomes are achieved by 1) applying new knowledge/material from journal articles to their concept maps; 2) articulating to classmates and instructors their thought processes depicted in concept maps; and 3) demonstrating an understanding of what material to place in their developing journal paper's literature review and in what order this material is best situated.

The projects are varied and will have an impact society in ways that most take for granted. Here are the projects students in this class are working on:

    Graduate Students:

  • Yasir Alhamadani is writing a literature review that focuses on investigating the treatment/removal of endocrine disrupting compounds in water using a combination of carbon nanotubes and ultrasonication.
  • William Gieser is investigating the relationship between drilled shaft load test capacities and CPT/SPT values in the Cooper Marl formation.
  • Ife Idowu is writing a proposal to explore the feasibility of recovering valuable nutrients from municipal solid waste using hydrothermal carbonization.
  • Ali Mirshahghassemi is writing a manuscript based on his Master's work that evaluated the treatment of carwash water in Iran using electrocoagulation and electro-Fenton processes.
  • Mostaqur Rahman is studying the seasonal variation of subgrade resilient modulus and its effect on rutting in South Carolina pavements.
  • Ryan Starcher is researching ground improvement techniques to increase the durability and reduce the life cycle costs of rural roads in South Carolina.
    Undergraduate Students:

  • Greg Bruekner is investigating techniques to decrease bridge pier scouring.
  • Taylor Daylami is investigating the use of geotextile tubes to mitigate coastal erosion.
  • Max Grogan is investigating the development of best practices for the extraction of shale oil and natural gas to minimize groundwater contamination.
  • McKenzie Hale is investigating the influence of different activation methods on the sportive capacity of char material produced from the hydrothermal carbonization of waste materials for uranium removal.
  • Lewis Stetson Rowles is investigating the use of dendrimer functionalized nultiwalled carbon nanotube hybrids for the removal of radionuclides and heavy metals associated with uranium mining.
  • Andrea Skinner is investigating comparison between electrocoagulation and chemical coagulation for removal of organic contaminants in landfill leachate.

ECIV 490/790 is a 'one-of-a-kind' pilot course that will serve as test bed for innovative engineering education approaches. Maher anticipates that this course will be replicated not only at the USC-Columbia campus, but on campuses nationwide. See how it will work for you…

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