Professor Joe Tranquillo (right) works with students hands on in the biomedical engineering lab. Photo: Brett Simpson

When Professor Joe Tranquillo, biomedical and electrical engineering, teaches the laws of thermodynamics, he sometimes takes students to the quad, assigns them roles as particles and directs them to interact with fellow particles while obeying simple rules and reacting to variables along the way.

This is “kinesthetic learning,” one tool in Tranquillo’s active-learning toolbox that he describes as “really powerful.”

Tranquillo’s own engineering education included an unusually high number of labs, so he appreciates the efficiency of hands-on learning. When he was ready to start his teaching career, he was drawn to Bucknell’s renown as a pioneering institution for exploring active learning in engineering classrooms.

“Bucknell has a national reputation and, in some cases, an international reputation, as a place where engineering learning is being invented and reinvented,” Tranquillo says. “I saw that Bucknell valued that approach, and it was attractive to me.”

Active learning wasn’t always so welcome in the classroom. In the 1990s, when it was still more concept than practice, Professor Michael Prince, chemical engineering, attended a conference on active learning in engineering education. He was instantly intrigued.

“It was a transformational experience,” Prince says of the conference. “It was probably the single most influential thing that happened in my career in terms of getting me to change direction.”

Within a few years, Prince abandoned his engineering research to delve deeper into the best ways to harness active learning for education. He reviewed studies, encouraged colleagues to try it and authored articles. With a team, he developed Project Catalyst, an annual workshop bringing engineering faculty and graduate students to Bucknell to learn research-driven strategies to incorporate active learning.

“It’s almost 20 years later and you can still go to that workshop today,” says Professor Margot Vigeant, chemical engineering, who was on the development team. “The workshop helped proclaim our leadership, because people come to Bucknell from all over the country to learn about active learning.”

As Prince’s research spread and faculty experimented with techniques, Bucknell became a place where active learning was happening.

“Bucknell is known not just as a place where we adopt new and interesting pedagogical techniques but also as a place where they’re being created,” Tranquillo says. “Some of the leading figures in engineering education are exploring and validating pedagogical techniques at Bucknell. We are creative explorers.”

Professor Keith Buffinton, mechanical engineering, says a trend of universities establishing departments devoted to engineering education signals Bucknell was on the right track — a long time ago.

“There are very few things best learned from a professor standing behind a podium lecturing to a thousand people,” Buffinton says. “We want students to be motivated and invigorated. Our other professors are really changing the expectations for engineering education and maybe for education more broadly. They are creating a future where active learning will be the norm.”

And it makes sense. There is perhaps no better fit for active learning than the engineering classroom — where learning to solve problems is the lesson.

“The more complex the classroom challenge is, the more it mirrors real-world challenges students will experience as engineers,” Tranquillo says. “And that’s what employers want — engineers who can solve problems in the real world.”