Virginia Tech Univ.
Holly Matusovich

Potential gaps between how faculty teach and how students learn engineering concepts is the subject of a new study by a Virginia Tech University assistant professor. Holly Matusovich will focus her five-year research on thermal dynamics classes in chemical and mechanical engineering, but the results "will unlock secrets to conceptual learning that will apply across all fields," she says.

On the faculty of the Blacksburg, Va.-based school's engineering education department, Matusovich will use a $438,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the gap between what faculty think they are teaching and what students say they are actually learning. "Faculty can develop expert blind spots where they forget what it's like not to know a concept," says Matusovich, who also has 12 years of industry experience. "Even basic misconceptions … can make it difficult for students to understand more advanced concepts and calculations. They may become confused and/or frustrated in processing the correct information and shut themselves off to learning."

The three-phase study will take place at the university and at five yet-to-be-selected partner sites, says Matusovich.

Academic observers see the potential value of the research in boosting engineering-school retention. "We could allow more customized learning versus mass teaching and learning and the resulting sorting that occurs in a one-size-learning-fits-all environment," says Jeffrey S. Russell, vice provost at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and former chairman of the school's civil engineering department. "It opens up the opportunity to help students succeed in engineering versus, as some see it, use of early courses to sort and sift students."