Discovery Learning: Much More Than A Marvel of Engineering

By Bill Henk — According to Dean Stan Jaskolski, March 5, 2010, qualified as a “game changing day” for Marquette and its College of Engineering.  This date marked the formal ground breaking for the new MU Discovery Learning Complex.  This  extraordinary facility will serve students, faculty, staff, administrators, and friends as well as the Milwaukee region and the state.  In a word, “WOW!”

The ground breaking itself ranked as first rate, but rather than describe it, I’ll simply refer you to an excellent brief video that captured the essence of the event.  Nor will I talk about the DLC structure itself.  One look at the artist renderings below serves ample notice to its imminent beauty.

Why Discovery Learning Matters

Don’t get me wrong; I admire elegant architecture as much as anyone.  But ours is an education blog, and I’m an education dean, so what intrigues me most is the teaching and learning that will take place in the building. 

In fact, from my standpoint, the Discovery Learning Complex matters most to the extent that it enhances the capacity of our MU Engineering students and faculty to master existing knowledge and create new understandings. Put differently, it’s how the building facilitates  teaching, learning, and scholarship that’s ultimately relevant.  Engineers will recognize this calculus as the concept of “purposing space” or the traditional “form following function” algorithm.

From Educational Psychology to Engineering

Engineers have created all kinds of amazing stuff, but discovery learning is not one of them.  The renowned educational psychologist, Jerome Bruner, typically receives credit for originating this holistic brand of acquiring knowledge and skills.  Truth be told, the concept can be traced  back at least as far as John Dewey, and the names of Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert are also often part of the discussion.

In any case, MU engineers, who in my experience tend to be very smart people, were astute enough to co-opt discovery learning for use within their own discipline.  The “thievery” actually occurred even before a 2009 national call from the Carnegie Foundation for transforming the way engineers are educated.  The call centered on program redesigns that promote analytical reasoning, practical skills, and professional judgment.   The integration and synthesis of knowledge, problem-solving, and collaboration represent the foundation for preparing students to “hit the ground running” after graduation.

What More Can Be Said About Discovery Learning?

In short, discovery learning is a method of inquiry-based instruction in which learners discover facts and relationships for themselves.  It grows out of the educational school of thought known as constructivism.  In constructivism, learners employ a repertoire of higher level reasoning to assemble knowledge of the world.  The model involves exercising the cognitive processes of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation for application in authentic settings.  Specific tenets of the model include the following:

  • True discovery learning requires problem solving situations.  Here learners draw upon their past experiences and prior knowledge to discover facts and relationships and unearth new truths.   The context requires students to explore and manipulate the learning environment, confronting questions and dilemmas, often by performing experiments.
  • The theory holds that learners will be more likely to recall concepts and skills acquired through discovery, because the channels of learning are more deeply activated.
  • Supporters of discovery learning argue that the model promotes active engagement and motivation, as well as self-directed learning, responsibility, and independence.  Creativity and problem solving are thought to develop through tailored, real world learning experiences.  The essence of the model is to learn by doing.

For the record, discovery learning goes by many names and has multiple variations including guided discovery, problem-based learning, simulation-based learning, case-based learning, and even incidental learning.

43.03825,-87.933261 Will Never Be the Same

And so it will be in the classrooms and labs of this state-of-the-art facility that discovery learning will take place.  The building at this particular latitude and longitude has been custom-designed for this very purpose.  Open architecture, common areas, and the use of glass will keep those working in the building connected with one another.

The physical layout of the building will take its form from the curricular redesign that the College has already put in motion.  In the Discovery Learning Complex, theory and practice will be balanced and blended in pursuit of real-world application.  New course sequences related to system investigation and design will prove to be even more impactful in the new environment as will pre-college experiences.

In the spirit of outreach to schools, the College will continue its exceptional support of K-12 STEM education through programs like Project Lead The Way, and some engineers will be trained to become teachers through the Noyce Scholars Program.  Add to those services the fact that school-aged children from elementary through high school will continue to be invited to explore engineering as a career.

In other words, Marquette is building the engineering workforce of the 21st century with innovative programming and pedagogy.

Now that’s what I call marvelous

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By the way, the Discovery Learning Complex had better deliver on all of these counts — seeing as how I’ve lost my beloved parking space to the building’s footprint!

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