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Brianno Coller: The Knowledge Constructor

April 17, 2014
Brianno Coller

Brianno Coller

When machines fail to function as designed, engineers deconstruct those devices to discover why. Careful measurements are made. Originals predictions are challenged. Errors in analysis and assumptions are sought.

And so it is natural that Brianno Coller, a mechanical engineer trained at Cornell and Princeton, realized that he needed to examine his ability to teach college students.

“I was encouraged by the feedback I would get from students directly and through course evaluations,” says Coller, who joined the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology in 2003.

“However, my confidence was usually shattered when it came time to grade exams,” he adds. “If my lectures were as clear, insightful and as interesting as students described them, why were so many students failing to apply concepts covered in class to slightly different contexts? Something had to change.”

Determined to make repairs, Coller immersed himself in literature on how people learn.

Knowledge, he read, “is not something that is simply transmitted, like pouring water into an empty vessel. Instead, knowledge is something that individual learners construct by making connections between the new material and existing knowledge.”

“Through a process of reading, reflecting and confronting my own contradictions, it became clear to me that my teaching approach was deeply flawed. I decided to stop striving for those crystal-clear lectures,” he says. “Instead, I chose to work on much larger tasks of designing learning environments where students construct knowledge and understanding, largely through direct experiences and social interactions.”

Coller, who earned his Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell, is now well-known for his use of video games in class. He’s also a proponent of the “flipped classroom.”

“Dr. Coller has turned his teaching into an academic pursuit of its own,” says Pradip Majumdar, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Spumone“The classroom is a laboratory where he performs experiments with novel teaching approaches and educational software tools that he has developed,” Majumdar adds. “Although on the surface his class looks like a bunch of fun and games, he has demonstrated that the educational innovations he has pioneered have resulted in significant measurable improvements in student learning.”

Multiple examples of how Coller helps students construct knowledge are found in MEE 211 (Engineering Dynamics).

Students read or watch videos outside of class and spent their class time in small groups where they work out problems, debate “what would happen if” questions and conduct simple desktop experiments.

They also play “Spumone,” a video game Coller created with grant support from the National Science Foundation.

Most successful video games are intense problem-solving exercises, he says, with specific goals, immediate feedback on success and challenges that grow in difficulty to keep players on the edge of their abilities.

Players use Xbox-like controllers, but Coller’s challenges are “nearly impossible to achieve via cat-like reflexes alone.”

“Instead,” he says, “students must devise strategies based on an understanding of physics in the simulate world, and then express those strategies mathematically in ways that can be interpreted by the software.”

He frequently scraps “ineffective” game modules to create new versions with “more impact” as he pursues his ultimate goal of transforming undergraduate engineering education.

“Professor Coller made it very obvious to us that he cared that we gained understanding of the material rather than strictly worrying about grades,” says Jennifer Case, an alumna working on her Ph.D. at Purdue. “When I went to see him about a question on the material in the class, he had a way of pointing me in the right direction … without actually giving me the answer, which is an excellent way to go about teaching.”