I'm really interested in almost any question that has to do with how engineering students learn.

Mike Prince, professor of chemical engineering, started his career 18 years ago doing traditional biochemical engineering research and teaching traditional lecture courses. About nine years later, he looked out at his classroom and realized that not one of the students would ever likely need to know the technical heat transfer calculation he was covering.

"Most of those students who stay in engineering won’t stay in hard-core engineering," he says. "They will go into management or sales or technical support. The ones who stay won’t necessarily do heat transfer or this particular calculation."

Today Prince studies how to be a better teacher.

"I’m really interested in almost any question that has to do with how engineering students learn," he says.

Active learning
Prince’s research centers around the concept of active learning, a broad term that includes any means to have students actively engage with the material. Active learning can be as simple as stopping a lecture every 10 to 15 minutes to have students discuss a question — or it can take radical departures from lecturing.

For example, Prince starts his Heat Transfer course by telling students on the first day that they have two weeks to design a heating and cooling system for the classroom.

"At this point they don’t know what heat is," he says. "They are not equipped to solve the problem." Over the next two weeks, Prince guides the students as they work through the problem independently.

Prince believes this approach addresses the real needs of engineering students — to solve open-ended problems, to gather and analyze information independently, and to work and communicate effectively with peers.

Mastering misconceptions
Prince is also studying how to address persistent misconceptions of critical engineering concepts.

"For any significant topic in class, students already have a preconception, a conceptual picture in their heads," Prince says. "It frequently is wrong, but they have one."

Together with associate professors Margot Vigeant (chemical engineering) and Katharyn Nottis (education), he has a four-year, half-million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to study the best ways to uncover and deal with preconceptions.

Prince was an early adopter of active learning, with help from colleagues Bill Snyder and Mike Hanyak, both professors of chemical engineering. The ideas have caught on.

"Now I’d say about three-quarters of my department of chemical engineering is seriously into some flavor of active learning," he says. "Maybe 25 percent or more of the faculty in the College of Engineering as a whole is seriously into active learning."

Prince was the 2007-08 recipient of the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Updated Jan. 25, 2010