The PIs propose an unorthodox and transformational approach to improving engineering education. It requires embracing a concept that has been used with great success by other organizations from marketing firms to educational television: humor. Despite the light nature of the subject, the team will conduct a large-scale controlled study to quantitatively determine if humor is statistically effective in improving engineering education. Specifically, they will test if the general intervention of humor can improve general engineering educational outcomes and retention. The hypothesis is that such an improvement would be due to an increase in the immediacy of the instructor interaction and they will test the likelihood that this mechanism is behind any observed improvement. They will also test if the use of humorous or whimsical systems with no less technical rigor (i.e. swelling gummi bears vs. heat exchangers) will reduce students? inability to make conclusions from engineering analysis (Conclusion Fear). Based on Cognitive-Affective personality theory, the team believes students? fear making conclusions given the internal impression that faculty are domain-experts that will severely criticize their conclusions. By using humorous systems for data or model analysis they will dispel this impression and empower students to make the important conclusions they need to make engineering design decisions thereby improving educational outcomes. The proposed work uses a unique team of an educational researcher experienced in engineering education and an engineering professor who is also a professional comedian.
Intellectual Merit : This will be the first large-scale controlled experiment to determine the effectiveness of humor on technical education, amid a sea of action-research investigations that have little or no statistically significant results. This study will also provide insight into the mechanism behind the effectiveness of a humorous intervention based on current personality theories. Such insight will allow more general application of humor to improve engineering education.
Broader Impacts : The results of this study will have significant impact on (i) distance learning (the immediacy concept addressed by our humorous intervention is even more important in this learning mode), and (ii) attrition rates among engineering students. Given that the unorthodox nature of our approach will appeal to a demographic that does not usually consider engineering studies, it has the potential to create a significant trend in engineering outreach and recruiting to address the U.S. need for significant numbers of engineers in the near future.