LEARNING THROUGH THEIR EYES: A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE OF THE SAILPLANE CLASS AT PENN STATE

Open Access
Author:
Wheeler, Timothy Folsom
Graduate Program:
Curriculum and Instruction
Degree:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
None
Committee Members:
  • Dr Scott Mc Donald, Thesis Advisor
  • Gregory John Kelly, Thesis Advisor
  • Thomas Litzinger, Thesis Advisor
Keywords:
  • student voice
  • aerospace engineering
  • qualitative research
  • engineering education
  • project-based courses
  • sailplane
Abstract:
Qualitative research methods are used to evaluate experiential learning in the Sailplane class at the Pennsylvania State University from the perspective of student participants. Sailplane is a vertically integrated, project-based honors course in the Aerospace Department of the College of Engineering at Penn State. From entering freshmen to super-seniors, students work in mixed teams to design and build a full-scale sailplane. In the class, lectures on aerospace engineering topics are presented in support of the theoretical work of the design teams. In lab, project teams learn the hands-on skills needed for the fabrication of a full-scale sailplane. Data from a series of semi-formal interviews are used to explore how the social dynamics (such as a well-ordered social hierarchy and mutual accountability of upper- and lowerclassmen) support the learning of difficult aerospace engineering topics. Freshmen are exposed to theoretical and practical aspects of designing and building a sailplane that would otherwise be considered beyond their capability. As they mature in the discipline, this early exposure affords them an intuitive understanding of the complex concepts inherent to aerospace engineering. In this study, data from interviews with student participants are used to examine how students learn to master highly technical subject matter, how they gain confidence in the rightness of their knowledge and what role the sailplane vehicle itself plays in this learning process. The students’ expression of what is important – so often neglected in studies of the success of project-based courses – is here given prominence. From these accounts, it is clear that students move effortlessly among three learning environments: an academic environment, a semi-professional setting and an intensely social milieu. The students see little need to distinguish among the three.