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Patrick Cunningham Seeks to Improve the Education Process

October 8, 2014

Grand Prix Cunningham

Educational Process: Teaching takes place in the classroom and laboratory for Patrick Cunningham, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering. He has been a member of the Rose-Hulman faculty since 2006.

Mechanical engineering professor Patrick Cunningham, PhD, has a passion for teaching and the process of educating problem-solvers to meet the demands of an ever-changing hi-tech world.

That’s why he’s leading the institute’s participation in a new national higher education consortium developing and promoting teaching practices to help engineering students reflect on their experiences.

Among the 11 colleges joining Rose-Hulman in this effort, supported by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, are Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Arizona State University, and the University of Washington.

Reflection is the process or reconsidering experiences, becoming aware of salient features, and processing them through specific lenses, which creates meaning and impacts future choices, according to Cunningham.

“Applied to educational experiences, reflection can deepen learning and lead to better monitoring and regulation of learning processes,” he says. “It helps students learn better and to take conscious control of their own learning. Developing the skills and habits of reflection helps students to adapt to new problems and to become lifelong learners.”

Cunningham is intrigued by the question: What Is Learning? He spent an educational sabbatical at Virginia Tech last year examining ways to address that question, looking into the metacognition concepts of the learning process, and studying education psychology.

“We need to challenge our students to learn differently. I believe we need to teach, not only what we’re learning, but how student learn those concepts,” he says.

Cunningham has brought those lessons back to the classroom this fall to teach mechanical engineering courses in graphical communications and mechatronic systems. He has also taught classes in mechanical systems, analysis and design of engineering systems, and robotics.

“I’m passionate about teaching. I love seeing the ‘Light Bulb Experience’ when the student gets the concept I’m teaching. There’s no better moment in the classroom than those ‘Ah Ha’ moments,” he says. “When those moments happen, I make sure the entire classroom shares in the experience.”

He has that same passion in the work he’s doing with the national reflection education consortium, which has a goal is to broaden the understanding and use of reflective techniques in engineering education, ultimately improving student educational outcomes.

“Rose-Hulman was selected to participate because of our national reputation in undergraduate engineering education, and the interest of our administration and faculty for continuous improvement in the education process,” states Cunningham, who has participated in consortium leadership videoconferences. “Our educational environment is unique and highly respected by our peers.”

Joining Cunningham to implement consortium activities will be Ella Ingam, PhD, associate professor of biology and biomedical engineering, and Jay McCormack, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering.