Lessons Learned: Implementing the Case Teaching Method in a Mechanical Engineering Course

Article excerpt


Case studies have been found to increase students' critical thinking and problem-solving skills, higher-order thinking skills, conceptual change, and their motivation to learn. Despite the popularity of the case study approach within engineering, the empirical research on the effectiveness of case studies is limited and the research that does exist has primarily focused on student perceptions of their learning rather than actual learning outcomes.


This paper describes an investigation of the impact of case-based instruction on undergraduate mechanical engineering students' conceptual understanding and their attitudes towards the use of case studies.


Seventy-three students from two sections of the same mechanical engineering course participated in this study. The two sections were both taught using traditional lecture and case teaching methods. Participants completed pre-tests, post-tests, and a survey to assess their conceptual understanding and engagement.


Results suggested that the majority of participants felt the use of case studies was engaging and added a lot of realism to the class. There were no significant differences between traditional lecture and case teaching method on students' conceptual understanding. However, the use of case studies did no harm to students' understanding while making the content more relevant to students.


Case-based instruction can be beneficial for students in terms of actively engaging them and allowing them to see the application and/or relevance of engineering to the real world.


case-based instruction, conceptual understanding, mechanical engineering


A majority of engineering classes involve the "teaching by telling" approach (i.e., lecture-based approach), which is still the most dominant teaching method for engineering classes (Elshorbagy and Schönwetter, 2002). However, this traditional lecture method leaves engineering graduates ill-prepared for the engineering profession (Lattuca, et al., 2006). The traditional lecture approach falls short because it is not an effective motivator for students as they are passive recipients of information rather than being actively involved in the learning process (Prince and Felder, 2006). Furthermore, the types of problems students often solve in classrooms using this traditional approach do not necessarily prepare them for the real-world problems they will encounter as engineers. Real-world problems are complex, ill-structured, without a clear solution, have conflicting goals, and can be presented in a number of ways (Jonnasen, Strobel, and Lee, 2006).

Use of the traditional lecture method also has led to low levels of student attendance and retention in the engineering disciplines (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). Seymour and Hewitt found that students reported poor teaching method as one of the main reasons for leaving or switching out of science, mathematics, and engineering majors. There is a 40 percent attrition rate in the engineering disciplines between freshmen and senior years (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). The student loss is proportionally even greater among women and minorities, leading to increased under-representation of these populations in engineering disciplines (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997).

The issues of student retention, preparing students for the nature of engineering, and lack of student motivation raises many questions for engineering educators. How do engineering educators allow students to "comprehend the nature of workplace problem solving" to prepare them for the real world of practice (Jonnasen, Strobel, and Lee, 2006)? How do engineering educators engage undergraduate engineering students? Hence, engineering educators face the challenges of not only preparing students for the workplace, but also engaging students in order to decrease attrition rates, especially among women and minorities. …