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Putting Excited Novices in Charge Works for WPI

Torbjorn Bergstrom
By Torbjorn Bergstrom Director - Haas Technical Education Center, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Automated education may not look like what you would expect. A few years ago I was giving a tour of the Manufacturing Laboratories at WPI to an executive of one of the largest CAM companies in the world. As we walked through the teaching lab and discussed the training tools we’ve developed, our culture, and our teaching philosophies, he made a concise statement that really summed everything up: “You’ve automated education.”

No, we don’t have robots feeding our students into artificial intelligence-controlled teaching machines. In fact much of our automation requires hands-on interaction of students with machine tools, tooling, computers, and hand tools. We have a system that allows and encourages students to learn and to teach each other.

At WPI, we leverage our staff to help as many students as possible at one time. We use a CNC Quick Guide, CAM tutorials and “Ikea style” online instructions delivered with touch screen monitors at each machine tool.

The end goal is to get our students to ask more interesting questions. The more teaching materials we develop, the better their questions get.

One of the most important things we have learned in the last few years is that the best instructor is not always the person who knows the most. As we deployed our automated instructions at the machine tools, we knew that some of the students would need help understanding the concepts or would miss a step and become confused. It was important for us to have someone who was familiar with the operations and the instructions available to them.

If we always used the staff to fill this role, we would lose the leverage provided by the automated instructions in the first place, so we began hiring Peer Learning Assistants (PLAs) to help teach some of the labs.

These PLAs were familiar with the materials and had learned how to ask interesting questions, but they were by no means experts. We soon observed that the lab sections led by experts never seemed to perform as well as those staffed by excited novices with access to experts when they had questions.

The system we now have lets us help more than 1600 WPI students a year make something they designed with only three full-time staff.

We have also partnered with the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership to help more than 300 long-term displaced workers find viable careers. And along the way, it has influenced hundreds of middle and high school students to consider futures in manufacturing.

The system has three main components:

  • self-paced online learning tools deployed through WPI’s Learn
    CNC Platform
  • hands-on, at-the-machine exercises that let students make chips the first time they see a machine tool, and
  • a culture that encourages students to learn from and teach each other.

A typical introductory lab today teaches about 18 students. After about 12 hours of watching, doing and teaching in the lab, each of these 18 students is capable of manufacturing something they have designed using the CNC machine tools in the lab.

Each lab section is led by three PLAs: one who has a significant experience, one with moderate experience, and one with almost no experience.

The students in the class perform each exercise in a process where they first observe someone completing the lab (the watch step). They then perform the operations of the lab (the do step). And then they finally become the instructor and read the instructions to the person who watched them complete the exercise (the teach step).

The best of the students from each lab section are invited to become PLAs. From the best of the PLAs, we hire students to help with daily operations of the labs, to teach our Advanced CNC Operator Training Class, and to manage the other PLAs.

That executive I led on a tour a few years ago was clearly on to something. We really have automated education.

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