Championing teaching innovation in engineering classrooms

Faculty of Engineering
Chemical and Biological Engineering
Engineering Design and Teaching Innovation
Students working together at desk with their laptops and coffee
When we think of a typical university classroom, we picture a lecture hall filled with students listening to a professor. While this structure is still useful, not all students learn best this way and not all subjects are taught best in this way. This is where the teaching methods of Andrew Sowinski and Clémence Fauteux-Lefebvre of the Faculty of Engineering come in.

The two professors have been bringing exciting innovations to their classrooms, showcasing the variety of teaching styles and technology available today and the success that new methods can bring about.  

The advantages of a flipped classroom

As a professor at the University of Ottawa since 2017, Clémence Fauteux-Lefebvre, understands both the learning environment before the COVID-19 pandemic and that of today's world.  

Even during her PhD studies, Fauteux-Lefebvre was interested in new teaching methods and tools to improve the learning experience. Her courses lend themselves well to a hands-on approach, where students must develop skills and strategies in engineering design, so she knew she needed to go beyond basic knowledge and teach students how to put complex principles into practice.  

Clémence Fauteux-Lefebvre, professor at the Faculty of Engineering

“I feel most useful when I help students while they are solving a problem, helping them work through the challenges. This is where I started to incorporate the flipped classroom into my courses.”

Clémence Fauteux-Lefebvre

— Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

She explored various ways of teaching to better understand the different types of learners in her courses. The flipped classroom approach, for example, offers a mix of pre-recorded lectures and in-person tutorials to account for those who learn best on their own and for those who learn best with others. These in-person tutorials, with the professor present, lead students to solve problems collaboratively to teach certain key competencies. While these courses still involve lectures, the lectures are pre-recorded so they can be watched anytime to accommodate different styles of learning.  

Another facet of the flipped classroom approach, according to Fauteux-Lefebvre, is that “there is less focus on homework and assignments, and more focus on in-class problem-solving.” 

Exams are still part of the curriculum, but these workshop sessions aim to help students better prepare for exams, as well as their future careers, by encouraging them to understand the material on a deeper level. “The concept of exam could be something that may evolve with time as well,” says Fauteux-Lefebvre.  

Fauteux-Lefebvre realizes that there is such diversity in the ways that students learn that it is hard to find one approach that works for everyone.  

A hybrid teaching environment and flexible class structure

Professor Andrew Sowinski has always been interested in adding new technology and methods to the classroom to support his teaching. “With the ever-changing student population, constantly evolving technology and research innovations, the classroom should maintain that same pace and continue to evolve its learning and teaching styles,” he says.  

Reflecting the shift in teaching that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, recorded lectures have become the norm and give students greater flexibility in learning. But Sowinski knew that further innovation was still needed, and his search for this innovation uncovered a teaching methodology called HyFlex.  

HyFlex is an abbreviation of hybrid and flexible, where “hybrid” stands for both work that the student does on their own time (asynchronous work) and group work done in class (synchronous work), while “flexible” gives students opportunities to learn on their own time, in person, or remotely. 

Andrew Sowinski, professor at the Faculty of Engineering

“Traditional lectures aim for one band of students who learn well through audio. The goal in introducing HyFlex is to widen that band of students so that all types of learners can get what they need.”

Andrew Sowinski

— Associate Professor, School of Engineering Design and Teaching Innovation

In practice, Sowinski’s classes have a combination of tutorials with students (synchronous work) as well as recordings of his lectures (asynchronous work). Students can then take advantage of learning in a group setting, but also watch lectures at times when they learn and absorb information best. “Not everyone necessarily learns best at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. Having in-person lectures recorded for certain students to watch later helps maintain flexibility in students’ schedules,” Sowinski says.  

Flexibility in his courses has helped increase work opportunities for students. In one of Sowinski’s courses, he had a student who was thinking of taking a research position, but the research schedule would have been in conflict with his class schedule. The fact that this class was recorded allowed the student to accept the research opportunity and watch the course when he had time.  

In addition to the HyFlex method, technology plays an important role in Sowinski’s teaching philosophy. “I am a big proponent of teaching with as many tools as I can, so that when students get into the workforce, they are already familiar with these tools and will have a competitive advantage over other graduates,” he states. These tools range from collaborative tools, such as Microsoft Teams, to job-specific tools, such as Microsoft Power BI.  

The future of teaching

There is no doubt that classroom learning in a discipline such as engineering is evolving. With a variety of new technologies and methods at a professor’s disposal, Fauteux-Lefebvre sees classrooms continuing to evolve to become more flexible and to prioritize a more practical, hands-on approach to learning that best prepares students for their future engineering careers. 

In the next ten years, Sowinski would like to leverage learning technology to increase access to individuals living in remote communities so that they can participate in higher education in virtual settings as seamlessly as possible.