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Professor Brianno Coller earns high marks for cutting edge paper

July 30, 2015
Brianno Coller (left) works with engineering students.

Brianno Coller (left) works with engineering students.

If professors were being graded, Brianno Coller just earned an A+ at the 2015 American Society for Engineering Education annual conference held last month in Seattle.

Coller, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, received the Mechanics Division Best Paper Award for his entry titled, “A Glimpse into How Students Solve Concept Problems in Rigid Body Dynamics.”

”It is a really good feeling to get that recognition,” Coller said. “The people who chose this paper – a committee of scholars in the area – review it and then nominate it. Having this set of scholars pick your paper out of a pool of papers is a great feeling.”

Pradip Majumdar, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said Coller’s award is noteworthy for him and the entire university.

“It is such great news for all of us here at NIU,” Majumdar said. “It is also a great recognition for the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and NIU nationally. I am extremely proud of Dr. Coller’s work.”

Coller’s paper stemmed from an engineering dynamics course he teaches at NIU, one that is both challenging and rewarding.

“It’s a really hard course, and a really critical course,” Coller said. “We are trying to get students to think and solve problems the way engineers do. We are laying a lot of foundation, and the course is absolutely critical to every other course in the curriculum.”

Brianno Coller

Brianno Coller

In his paper, Coller examined a student’s ability to handle concept-type questions, abbreviated questions that get at whether a student understands a concept and can apply it. It differs from the traditional engineering problem solving process in which students are required to perform mathematical calculations. Students often can apply an equation correctly without really understanding the underlying concept.

It’s a topic that has gained a lot of attention in the engineering education research arena, and one that Coller is passionate about.

“My hypothesis is that we teach these rules – mathematical tools and techniques – and students learn how to apply them,” Coller said. “But when they see a problem where they aren’t actually asked to do a calculation, they go back to these sort of gut instincts, and they aren’t applying the actual principles and theories they should be applying. Now we have to figure out how to repair this.”

Coller will present his winning paper to attendees at the 2016 American Society for Engineering Education conference.

by Jane Donahue