Using a Free-Form Lab: Chaos or Learning?

Using a Free-Form Lab: Chaos or Learning?

By Erin Hanlon
Mechanical Engineering Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Recently in my Friday afternoon class (who thought Friday afternoon was a good time to lecture, anyway?), as students’ eyes glassed over, one of them asked that we do a lab instead of the lecture that I had planned.

Having not planned a lab activity for that day at all, initially I hesitated to deviate from my carefully constructed plan. I didn’t have anything to give them to do, so how would this work? Would we just be wasting an hour of class time playing around with the lab equipment? What could they possible get out of this?

Knowing that flexibility is important (and realizing that I had already lost at least half of the students’ attention, anyway), I decided to allow the class to spend the remainder of their time working collaboratively in a ‘free lab’ setting. I gave some general guidelines so that they would be using their time constructively and using the equipment safely, but otherwise, I let them create their own goals and expectations. Once they had decided what they were trying to accomplish, I approved their plan and they started building.

In all of the previous labs that we had done in class, the students had very specific directions and measurements that were required. They weren’t coming up with suggestions or designing their own experiments.

When working during their free lab time, students were allowed to set things up and see how they worked differently when changes were made. They had the chance to notice how the decisions that they made based on their previous coursework altered their outcomes. They were also forced to justify their choices and think about the decisions that they were making instead of strictly following the steps provided to them.

I found that using a free lab approach provided a valuable lesson in problem solving and hypothesizing that was missing from the previous lab exercises. Students were able to exercise their system design skills and see that it wasn’t just plopping together a bunch of pieces to see what works. This was a much better representation of what technicians or engineers would be doing in the ‘real world,’ and having them get a glimpse of that in the classroom was very valuable.

This is a lesson that I will implement with intention into future courses. I believe it was successful in providing hands-on learning in a format different from what students were used to being exposed to and more realistic to what they can expect in the future.

Building Community for Active-Learning Pedagogies


By Al Drushler
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

I recently attended a 3-day workshop on Problem-Based Learning (or PBL) at the University of Delaware. The main sponsor of the workshop was University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education, started in the 90s by a group of professors who wished to use more active learning strategies in their courses. Continue reading

Congratulations to Tina Gary!


By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Today, we wanted to take a break from our usual programming in order to recognize Tina Gary, the Surgical Technology Program Coordinator at the Terry Campus, on her recent reception of the Didactic Educator of the Year Award from the Association of Surgical Technologists, a national organization.

This award goes to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the education of surgical technologists in the classroom. Recipients are recognized for their commitment to the profession of surgical technology and to the advancement of educational standards resulting in high quality patient care.

Tina’s strength in the classroom takes many forms, but one that is particularly worthy of recognition on this blog is her commitment to problem-based learning, an instructional strategy that she employs daily. Problem-based learning (or PBL) is an active learning strategy in which students learn discrete skills within the context of solving more complex problems.

In Tina’s classes, students are presented with realistic patient scenarios before they learn the underlying clinical concepts. By searching for realistic answers to Tina’s guiding questions, students discover the requisite knowledge in the midst of real-world application–all the while also developing self-direction, self-appraisal, problem-solving, and teamwork skills necessary for success in the workplace.

I have blogged about problem-based learning in the past, and I know how much work it can involve from the instructor. I also know that this work is worth it. PBL breeds exciting lessons, engaging classrooms, and–most importantly–students who can think critically. Those students go on to become critical thinkers in the workplace, and I’m sure that we can all agree that critical thinking is an integral part of every surgery team.

Please join me in congratulating Tina Gary!