ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Joe Tront: Teaching with Technology

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Photograph of Joe Tront

Joe Tront demonstrates how he uses a tablet PC to draw diagrams, add annotations, and pose problems, while students use tablet PCs donated by Microsoft to take notes and solve mathematical problems

As information technology alters the practice of electrical and computer engineering, it is also constructively affecting how engineering is taught. ECE Professor Joe Tront is on the national vanguard of that movement.

Virginia Tech recently awarded Tront the 2005 XCaliber Award for excellence in teaching with technology. Under an NSF grant, he led a team from six universities who developed technology-based courseware modules to support improving teaching and learning. Tront also serves as co-editor for the Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Education — an international competition rewarding authors of high-quality, non-commercial courseware designed to enhance engineering education. At Tech, he’s using a Microsoft grant to explore how tablet PCs can facilitate active learning in engineering classes.

The real payoff, as he sees it, is in the transformation of his classroom. In the days of chalkboard computations and podium lectures, you’d find someone snoozing in the back row and maybe two or three diffident souls who weren’t getting it, but wouldn’t say a word. Yet the lecturer would unknowingly go on, “bombarding them with facts,” as Tront likes to characterize the old style of passive learning.

Now, by teaming interactive software with Virginia Tech’s wireless network infrastructure, Tront has transformed his basic computer-architecture classroom into a lively learning studio, where students ask questions and jockey for feedback. While Tront lectures, using a tablet PC to draw diagrams, add annotations to models, and pose problems, students use tablet PCs donated by Microsoft to take notes and solve mathematical problems. They wirelessly submit their work to Tront, who projects the product on a screen for all class members to view and discuss. They receive immediate feedback from each other, as well as from Tront.

“We compare and contrast digital circuit designs this way,” Tront said. “They see how an expert might solve the problem, and then they ask “what if” questions. They are learning the process of solving problems, which is really important because the problems are going to change as the students move on into industry. We have a good time here. It’s a participatory class now.”

He also uses the tablets for in-class polls to determine whether students are absorbing the material. “I’ll give them a multiple choice question, and as the answers come in electronically, I’ll see whether I need to repeat the topic using a different approach,” he said. “The individual responses give me a great way to gauge the information transfer, and the interactive component really invigorates the class.”

Active learning is the bottom line, he says. When students are probing, discovering, testing, and applying their learning, they grasp material faster and retain it better, he says. With the help of the tablet PC, they see, hear, and act upon information all at once. By this means, students who are visual, auditory, or physical learners are all served. The software is especially good at helping students visualize engineering concepts, even when they aren’t working in the lab.

Tront supported the effort in making Tech’s College of Engineering the first public institution to require freshman to have desktop computers, back in 1984. Eight years later, as assistant dean for the college, he assumed the role of chief advocate for computer use and pushed to update the requirement from desktop to laptop. Now, he says, tablet PCs will soon be required.

Photograph of students using laptops

"When students are actively involved in probing, discovering, testing, and applying their learning they grasp material faster and retain it better..."

“Having a tablet provides our students with the continual access to notes, data, applications software that they had with the laptop, as well as the add-ons of a digitized screen and writing stylus,” he said. “Hewlett Packard has agreed to sell our students the new tablet PCs for the same price as the laptops — a savings of $200. This will help the transition.”

The digitized screen allows users to incorporate handwritten input into Microsoft Office applications, annotate documents imported from a server or other computer, and use a stylus for pointing, clicking, selecting, and dragging. Another feature integrated into the tablet PCs is handwriting-to-text conversion.

Tront’s interest in using technology to improve teaching was stimulated during his years in the Dean’s Office, where he had leadership roles in such efforts to improve undergraduate education as NSF’s nine-university SUCCEED Coalition where he directed the Center for Technology-Based Curriculum Delivery. He observed that the coalition played a national leadership role in showing that active, experiential approaches using technology help the learning process.

Now Tront is pleased to see other engineering professors testing the tablet PC in their courses, particularly in the Engineering Education division where they are experimenting in freshman courses. They are already noticing how much the technology can reduce paper flow, how easy it is to annotate complicated diagrams, and how convenient it is to receive and return student assignments electronically (and receive electronic receipts). “The visualization capabilities and expressive capacity afforded by the tablet PC has great potential for stimulating freshmen engineering students studying general engineering concepts,” Tront says.

“The interactive approach is especially good for presentations of dynamic material,” he says. “I think we could teach all our engineering classes this way.” To that end, he and his students have written a new software application for tablet PCs called WriteOn, which allows the user to annotate on top of the screen display of any operational Windows program. Using WriteOn, instructors can better describe the behavior of computer-based engineering tools or elucidate any other visual concept display on the computer screen. WriteOn also generates electronic notes of presentation sessions.

Tront is the editor for NEEDS (National Engineering Education Delivery System), a digital library of learning resources for engineering education, and also co-editor for MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) engineer collection. He is part of a collaboration that recently was awarded almost $3 million by the NSF to provide a comprehensive engineering portal for high-quality teaching and learning resources in engineering, computer science, information technology and engineering technology. He is involved in merging NEEDS and Teach Engineering into a unified K-Gray engineering educational digital library.

—Su Clauson-Wicker