Daniel Frank,Teaching Assistant Professor at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, has created a learning environment that cultivates imagination in his first year engineering courses.
Frank teaches EGR 101 and EGR 102 at the Polytechnic campus, both Foundations of Engineering Design Project courses that are required across several engineering majors. Students learn in-person the foundational engineering concepts, such as critical thinking in engineering design, team dynamics, and experimental verification of engineering models.
“Imagination is important for them specifically in engineering,” Frank explains. “If we want these really creative solutions, we need to be able to tap into that imagination.”
In September 2021, a now viral video of the beloved character Steve from Blues Clues caught the world’s attention. In the video, Steve shared a heartwarming message that resonated with many, including Frank. “Engineering’s tough,” Frank says. “It’s not a very welcoming environment for a lot of people. I’m one person and I recognize that. I can’t change everything, but I want to do what I can.”
Frank, inspired by Steve’s message, designed a class activity that took imagination to the next level. Frank innovated his class by creating an alternative reality game for his students with graphics, animations, music, and riddles. He created a fictional feline customer, Rusty, that students would design for. Rusty – an orange tabby cat – compelled students to use creativity in their customer discovery of Rusty’s needs. Frank even donned a green, striped polo for the class session. He called the class activity Rusty’s Riddles.
“One of the challenges is trying to find that balance,” Frank says. “Of being able to create an environment where students who are just coming in feel safe to start learning engineering and also making sure that the students who have that experience are being challenged.”
Using creative, interactive activities allowed his students to experiment, design for their customer, and further develop their imagination. “I did a debrief to unpack what we were talking about and why I did that in the end… the final message I gave to them was the importance of using your imagination and I let them know that I was really proud of them.”
Nahlia Morris, a robotics engineering student, shares “He was not just a regular teacher who just talked and threw material at us. He really wanted to make sure that we were comprehending the material.”
Students were highly engaged with the Rusty’s Riddles content and Frank’s human-centered approach to this imaginative activity. Frank shared that this was “universally well received” and the positive feedback was encouraging to continue to evolve the project the following semester.
Isaiah Garcia, a general engineering systems student, says “It was very interactive. There were a lot of people participating that day compared to some of the other classes.”
Gracie Garcia, a robotics engineering student, shares, “He definitely cared a lot about his students. He made class really fun to come to and I appreciated the effort that he put into it.”
Beyond the student engagement, Frank felt that this gave him more confidence to take more risks in the classroom. Frank says, “It was a reminder that my own imagination is a powerful thing. My ability to create an awesome experience for these students is a really powerful thing. My whole goal was to get them to recognize their own imagination and its power and at the same time, it also made me appreciate my own even more.”
If interested in integrating similar practices into your courses, please reach out to the Learning and Teaching Hub team.
This article and video are part of a faculty spotlight series, Academic Innovators, that provides recognition and insight for the inspirational work and research being done in the FSE community. Please consider nominating a faculty member (yourself, included!) to be featured.