Surveys of Students in an Introductory Materials Science Course

The course, ENG-45, Properties of Materials, is a 4-unit lower division course that is taught during all three quarters of the academic year plus summer session. Enrollment is typically 90-130 each quarter except summer, and is taken by students from all majors. The laboratory portion of this course consists of four experiments. Each begins with a discussion session where the instructor, usually a teaching assistant, helps prepare the students to do the experiment, the laboratory session where they all do the experiment, and finally a written formal report.

Over the past few years I have shown students how, and encouraged them to use, spreadsheets to help them in their laboratory assignments. Finally I decided to make spreadsheets a formal part of each experiment, but to help the students get the most out of this and to ease them into this new territory they were given guides to preparing for the experiment and writing their reports, all which required using spreadsheets. The format for each experiment was:

  • Preparation: Students are given exercises to complete before they come to the laboratory to do the experiments. These exercises are typically sample calculations that help them understand the equations they’ll use in the laboratory, or compiling data similar to that they will be generating.

  • Experiment: Spreadsheets become secondary in this phase, but may be used to compile and organize data in group experiments and to import data and generate plots. In many cases, the spreadsheets they created before coming to the lab are adapted and expanded to include the experimental results.

  • Reports: Students are given a number of recommendations on how to analyze and present their data, including using simple spreadsheets to help compare measured versus reference data, etc.

You can view these guides at the course's web site at www.matsci.ucdavis.edu/MatSciLT/ENG-45L/ENG-45L.htm

Students in course were surveyed at the beginning and end of the quarter. The first survey consisted of xx questions dealing with:

  • Experience and expertise using computers and spreadsheets
  • Experience using other applications
  • Experience with programming languages
  • Experience with computers in general

In the second survey the students were asked a number of the same questions from the first survey so that I could gage their improvements in areas of general computer competence, skill level using spreadsheets, etc. In addition they were asked about specific skills and broader the impact of their experience:

  • Using spreadsheets in engineering courses
  • Learning materials science
  • Broader impacts, such as the ability to organize and present data, handle data from experiment, etc.

A total of 116 students participated in the first survey while 97 participated in the second.

Click the links below to see the results of these surveys.

Back to top

Overall Results

The overall results were very positive in each of the categories listed above. To illustrate, the following graph shows the totals for students' responses to questions regarding specific skills (using spreadsheets in engineering courses and learning materials science) learned. "Strongly Agree" in each question meant the student felt that they strongly agree that they learned the skill in question.

Finally, several students wrote brief comments at the bottom of the final survey.  All but one of these told us that the students genuinely appreciated the experience. See the figure below.

Back to top

Experience Using Spreadsheets

This section shows the results of students' responses to questions about their experience and expertise using spreadsheets. The graphs below show their responses to the first and final surveys. It is easy to see that in all areas the students' ability to use spreadsheets improved considerably.

NR in the graphs below indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

Which of the following spreadsheets have you ever used?

What is your level of expertise using spreadsheets?

  • Beginner, I can enter data, write relatively simple formulas, and create basic charts.
  • Intermediate, I can write complicated formulas, import data, perform moderately difficult numerical analyses, have used the advanced numerical tools, and can work with any type of chart
  • Advanced, I can perform complicated numerical and financial analyses, write macros, and implement form controls in my spreadsheet
  • Expert, I can write complicated macros, created automated spreadsheets, and can utilize the database features.

I have used spreadsheets to do the following:

  • Homework in non-science courses
  • Homework in science and engineering courses
  • During engineering or technical employment
  • During undergraduate or graduate research
  • In high school (or earlier) projects

I use spreadsheets in my coursework:

  • Never
  • Occasionally
  • Routinely

If given a homework assignments in this course that requires using spreadsheets, I would:

  • Have no problem completing the assignments
  • Need a little help completing the assignments
  • Need a lot of help completing the assignments

Students were asked to write the formula for the volume of a sphere as they would enter it into a cell in a spreadsheet. The graph indicated how many students did this correctly.

 

Back to top

Experience Using Other Applications

This section shows the results of students' responses to questions about there experience and expertise using other types of application software. These questions were only asked in the first survey. These results provided a better idea of the starting point for our students.

NR indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

I have used the following applications more then once or twice:

  • Word Processors
  • Presentation software (i.e., Power Point)
  • Databases
  • HTML authoring tools
  • Disk and system utilities
  • Imaging software (i.e. Photoshop)
  • Accounting Software
  • Other

I am proficient at using the following applications:

  • Word Processors
  • Presentation software (i.e., Power Point)
  • Databases
  • HTML authoring tools
  • Disk and system utilities
  • Imaging software (i.e. Photoshop)
  • Accounting Software
  • Other

Back to top

Experience With Programming Languages

This section shows the results of students' responses to questions about their experience and expertise using programming languages. These questions were only asked in the first survey. These results provided a better idea of the starting point for our students.

NR indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

I have written computer programs in the following languages:

  • BASIC
  • FORTRAN
  • Pascal or Delphi
  • C or C++
  • Forth
  • Java
  • Assembly
  • None
  • Other

Programs I have written include:

  • Homework assignments
  • Number-crunching
  • Small but useful programs, utilities
  • Larger programs, as part of a team
  • Games and multimedia
  • Other

The approximate number of hours I have spent writing computer programs:

  • Under 100 hours
  • 100 to 500 hours
  • More than 500 hours

Back to top

Experience Using Computers

This section shows the results of students' responses to questions about their experience and expertise using computers. These questions were only asked in the first survey. These results provided a better idea of the starting point for our students.

NR in the graphs below indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

My age when I started using computers for other than entertainment or playing games.

Number of years I have been using computers for other than entertainment or playing games.

My level of expertise using computers is:

  • User - uses computers but cannot fix them or install new parts
  • Advanced - uses computers a lot, can fix them (sometimes) and install memory, expansion cards and software
  • Power user - can assemble computers from a box of parts, install and configure operating systems and applications, am familiar with more than one programming language
  • Expert - can set up and maintain networks, manage accounts and security, specify and purchase systems

Back to top

Using Spreadsheets in Engineering Courses

This section shows the results of students' responses to question about their ability to use spreadsheets in other engineering courses. These questions were only asked in the final survey and addressed one of the main goals of this project.

Each question in this category began with the phrase "My spreadsheet experience in this course has helped me learn how to:". The students' responses were:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

NR indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

Compile data into tables and generate plots.

Use spreadsheets to perform simple calculations and plot the results.

Create numerical models that involve a number of equations and basic numerical methods (slopes, Simpson's rule).

Import data files, analyze the data and plot the results.

Copy and paste data and objects, such as graphs, to and from other applications.

Back to top

Learning Materials Science

This section shows the results of students' responses to question about how mush the spreadsheets exercises helped them learn materials science. These questions were only asked in the final survey. 

Each question in this category began with the phrase "The use of spreadsheets in this materials science course has:". The students' responses were:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

NR indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

Led to a better understanding of basic concepts such as bonding, mechanical properties, and phase diagrams.

Provided me with tools that I can use to explore other materials concepts such as diffusion, crystallography, and electrical properties.

Helped me generate more informative and effective laboratory reports.

Back to top

Broader Impacts

This section summarizes the students' responses to survey questions on broader issues, such as the likelihood that they will continue to use spreadsheets in other courses. These questions were only asked in the final survey.  These results show that we have been successful in achieving the long-term goals of this project.

Each question in this category (except the last two) began with the phrase "My spreadsheet experience in this course has helped me learn how to:". The students' responses were:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

NR indicates the number of students who did not answer the question.

Organize and present data.

Use spreadsheets to illustrate concepts, such as by plotting equations to see what the curves look like.

Use spreadsheets to solve engineering problems.

Handle data from experiments.

I will be more likely to use spreadsheets in other engineering courses.

The use of spreadsheets should become a normal part of all materials science courses.

Back to top