"Play" = serious learning in Cheryl Bodnar's engineering classes

"Play" = serious learning in Cheryl Bodnar's engineering classes


Students in Dr. Cheryl Bodnar’s freshman engineering clinic at Rowan University are spending some time playing cards and making like Alex Trebek with “Jeopardy” rounds this semester.

Don’t judge.

Inspired learning

What might seem like fun and games to the casual observer are actual creative ways to inspire learning.

The cards? They help the class conquer statistical principles.

Jeopardy? That helps them review course concepts before exams, among other things.

Bodnar’s classes incorporate hands-on activities and games to promote student engagement and immersion.

Viewing problems differently

“The ultimate goal behind a game-based learning curriculum is creativity, to get students to view problems in a different light,” states Bodnar, as assistant professor in the Experiential Engineering Education (ExEEd) Department in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering.”

A recent class for sophomores required groups to travel from one side of the classroom to another without touching the “lava” (the floor), using only one sheet of construction paper. Immediately, groups formed around the room and students discussed the best approach. Each group started out with a unique plan: some split the paper to give everyone a piece, while others tried traveling across two at a time. The groups communicated with each other and observed their classmates and together discovered what they felt was the most efficient way – one person shuffled across, crumbled the paper up and threw it back to the other side for the next team member.

Preparing for the unexpected

After reaching the other side, students high-fived, laughed and returned to their seats, as Bodnar pointed out the importance of learning from others and recognizing the plan in place at the beginning of a project is not necessarily the plan at the end. This activity taught the students to be prepared for the unexpected when approaching problem solving.

Another lesson asked students to decipher a secret message, written in coded symbols. Each student received a card revealing the meaning of one of the symbols. The challenge for the students was to describe to one another what each symbol represented, using only verbal communication.

Friends turned to one another and described the symbols on their cards first, but quickly discovered they would need to travel outside the friend group – and their comfort zones – to discover the meaning behind each symbol. After some time, Bodnar asked if they’d like to give up with two codes remaining to which a resounding “NO!” echoed across the laboratory.

Improving communication

The lesson for the students here was terminology does not always have the same impact with everyone and the importance of knowing an audience when communicating. Bodnar’s lecture reminded her students that in their future careers they will be working with different types of people, from different generations and backgrounds. The goal is to find a way to communicate with everyone. She relates finding successful communication skills to explaining the difficult engineering concepts and terms to non-engineering relatives during the holidays.

While getting across a lava river or decoding a secret message may not seem like typical lessons for an engineering discipline, Bodnar says these games encourage student engagement and hold a lot of value.

“Game-based learning pushes students to think on a different level,” says Bodnar, and it can be applied to any discipline to help students learn teamwork, communication skills and to think and learn outside their comfort zones.