Dankowicz's initiatives have impact in and out of the classroom

3/28/2017 Miranda Holloway, MechSE Communications

  After a long class, it’s not just the students who might feel mentally fatigued. Lecturing for extended periods of time can be demanding for professors as well.

Written by Miranda Holloway, MechSE Communications

After a long class, it’s not just the students who might feel mentally fatigued. Lecturing for extended periods of time can be demanding for professors as well. But when Cannon Faculty Scholar and Professor Harry Dankowicz leaves his ME 340 (Dynamics of Mechanical Systems) class, he feels energized. 
He teaches the course as a flipped classroom—meaning that students watch short video lectures at home before class and then work on actual problem-solving in groups during class. 
“During one of these classes, I’m all active,” Dankowicz said. “I’m all over the place. I’m helping all these students, but I come away relaxed. It’s a very non-stressful environment.”
This summer, he’s teaching the class in this learner-centered way for the fourth time, after teaching it twice before using more traditional, teacher-centered methods, with emphasis on lecturing and working out problems on the blackboard. 
“I had the sense that maybe the traditional method wasn’t working as well as I’d like,” he said. 
The material was moving too fast, and the students didn’t seem to be making the necessary connections. 
In an effort to create a classroom environment more conducive to learning, Dankowicz looked back to his days in college in Sweden. There, students weren’t required to attend class and were not assigned homework. Instead, they were given the freedom to work independently before taking the final exam. 
Dankowicz said he rarely attended class, but instead studied his textbooks in detail, solved large numbers of problems, and practiced using past tests. 
Inspired to engender such independence, he got to work preparing a new set of lecture notes for ME 340, recording pre-lecture videos, writing worksheets, and creating new lab handouts. 
“I wanted to put more emphasis on the student experience and provide them with a lot of solved exercises that I could pattern the homework on and, to some degree, pattern the tests on,” he said. 
Now his students set their own pace for learning. There are online lectures and a few questions to review prior to class. The majority of classroom time is spent with students working in small groups to complete worksheets. Content developed in the online lectures and worksheets is directly reflected in the freely available lecture notes.
And he holds optional review sessions outside of class before each of seven formative assessment tests, which are administered biweekly. 
Dankowicz said that initially allowing students to feel a little frustrated when working through new concepts helps create an emotional experience for them. This makes the “a-ha” moment when they understand the material that much sweeter. 
“This mixture of emotion and activity, I hope, has a better chance of creating a permanent memory, at least a long-term memory, and also translate to stamina and perseverance in the exploration of new things,” he said. 
Along with taking the initiative to utilize flipped classroom instruction, Dankowicz has also worked for many years to help establish a strategic partnership between the University of Illinois and three of the top schools in his hometown of Stockholm.  
The Illinois-Sweden Program for Educational and Research Exchange (INSPIRE) is a transnational partnership based on education, research, and public engagement. Among its goals are to allow students with constrained schedules to study abroad and still graduate on time. 
As a result of this program, more than 30 Illinois undergraduate students traveled to Stockholm in the spring 2016 semester, attending Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet, and Dankowicz’s alma mater, the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
Earlier this year, the program was recognized with the Institute of International Education’s Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education, which promotes and honors the most outstanding initiatives being conducted in international higher education.  
Dankowicz himself left his native country for the first time in 1991 to continue his education, arriving at Cornell University to work on his PhD in theoretical and applied mechanics, which he earned in 1995. 
“Going somewhere else and embedding yourself in a foreign culture is an entirely different experience from traveling as a tourist. The U.S. is very big and a country of the world. But a lot of people here have not traveled outside of North America by the time they get to college. So going away for a period of time is usually an eye-opener.”

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This story was published March 28, 2017.