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CivE Days: Enhancing Student Learning by Providing a Failure Risk Free Environment and Experiential Learning Opportunities

Grant recipients and project team: 

Rania Al-Hammoud, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Scott Walbridge, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Stephen Phillips, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Kayleanna Giesinger, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

(Project timeline: September 2017 - August 2018)


In second year civil engineering, students participate in a horizontally integrated bridge design project to increase their exposure to engineering application and prepare for their fourth-year design project. To compliment this project, a two-day event called CivE Days was implemented. This event freed students from classes and deadlines and allowed them to completely immerse themselves in a simulated bridge design project. The set-up of the event is split into four stages: preliminary design, bridge construction, bridge testing and project reflection. Learning takes place through a combination of experiential learning, group work, reflective learning, and learning from failure. All of these pedagogical approaches promote a deeper level of learning for students and enhance knowledge retention in upper years. The effectiveness of the CivE Days initiative was evaluated through the final bridge project testing results, final bridge project report marks, and surveys submitted at the end of the CivE Days event. It was found that student grades and performance improved, indicating a better understanding of the bridge design project and how the information from the different courses are integrated.

Questions Investigated

The intended outcomes of this event aimed at allowing students to have a better understanding of the popsicle sticks bridge design project requirements and how the information from the different courses are integrated. Through CivE Days, students have the supervised time that allows them to increase their exposure and experiment with the required design components of the project. This gives students early exposure to project concepts which prevents them from starting their project last minute. As a result, it was predicted that the final bridge design projects would be completed with better quality, more creative designs, and demonstrate a better understanding of related concepts from their courses.

The learning methods utilized in CivE Days include student interest directed learning, experiential learning, learning through failure, and reflective learning. The hands-on nature of CivE Days and the layout of the tasks within it allows for diverse learning techniques and thorough reflections. The event was not graded to allow students to experiment and learn in a stress-free atmosphere. The testing and reflection aspects of CivE Days allows students to learn through failure. All of these pedagogical approaches promote a deeper level of learning for students and enhance retention in upper years


The data collection for CivE Days was broken into three methods. These methods were, student survey responses, bridge project grades, and reflection report feedback. These various methods aimed to gauge student satisfaction and to quantify the effectiveness of the event in helping with the popsicle stick bridge design project. Overall, participation in the optional CivE Days event was successful, with 121 out of 165 students choosing to partake.

As described earlier, after CivE Days, students were given an optional survey to complete, and 83% of participating students filled out the survey. The survey aimed to assess the student satisfaction and to determine the immediate student response for the course integration and freedom for creativity. The results showed that 83% of people who participated chose to come because of the content being covered. Fifty-seven percent of those students thought it seemed interesting and fun, while 26% wanted the opportunity to prepare for the bridge project. The remaining 17% were interested in free food and prizes.

When asked if students wanted to participate in a similar event again in the future, 86% said they would. It is also shown in Figure 2 that most of the students preferred not having a graded component to the event.

The results from the 2017 class grades compared to the 2016 class are shown in Figure 6. The overall bridge testing performance had a 4% grade increase with 2% more of the class being able to withstand the minimum strength to weight squared ratio of 250. The 2016 class had 89 out of 121 students achieve the goal and 124 out of 165 students in the 2017 class. Also, the average of the final report and the overall project mark of the 2017 class increased by 7% compared to the 2016 class.

The final form of data collected was student responses through the reflection report in the course project. The reflection reports discussed the direct impact of CivE Days on the popsicle sticks bridge design project. Common themes included CivE Days being a fun and rewarding experience that connected them to applications of their courses. Students were happy with how fun it was and felt that it was a nice break from the stress of school. However, some students thought that the benefits of CivE Days to their bridge design project were limited. They felt that the bridge building materials used for both projects were too different. Many of the problems faced were material specific and therefore limited the usefulness of the CivE Days as a practice design.

Dissemination and Impact

  • At the individual level: Students and colleagues found this to be engaging. A good number of faculty interacted with the students during these days. Students who participated reflected that this was an exciting project where they can have fun and learn at the same time.
  • At the Department/School and/or Faculty/Unit levels: This was presented in the department meeting and was shared as a highlight event at several of the faculty gathering (e.g.,. announcement of the NSERC design chair and opening of the Engineering 7 building). It was promoted on the Civil engineering website. There is an initial discussion of how to make this event embedded into the curriculum.
  • At the institutional (uWaterloo) level: This was presented at University of Waterloo Teaching and Learning Conference in April 2018.
  • At the national and/or international levels: At the national level, a paper was presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association conference (CEEA 2018) in June at Vancouver, BC Canada. The paper shared data from the CivE design days as well as others done in different programs. At the international level, a paper was presented at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE 2018) in June at Salt Lake City in Utah, and it received a wide acceptance and discussion in the conference.

Impact of the Project

  • Teaching: As my experience with the design days, it is my intention to continue to implement this event in future years and try to make this as part of the curriculum. 
  • Involvement in other activities or projects: Because of the success of this project, I was able to initiate EnvE/GeoE design days for the 2A and 1B students in my department, that were a success as well. One was implemented in March 2018 and the other was implemented in May 2018. We also initiated AE Design days in September 2018 as a way to start the new program that started in our department.         
  • Connections with people from different departments, faculties, and/or disciplines about teaching and learning: This was also presented in the Integrative learning series that was presented within the faculty of engineering for all engineering disciplines. 


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