“Education will always be a challenging profession, but the good news is that we now have more tools to help us”, says Jorge Bris about the constant changes teachers face today when trying to find better ways to communicate and share information with their students. Bris is a mechanical engineer and has worked in academia in one way or another since 1996. Teaching has always been his passion, and in the engineering lectures he gives today at the Universidad del Norte (Uninorte), he emphasizes the importance of collaborative learning. With strategies like this, Jorge faces head on the reality of students dropping out of, failing, or needing to retake the engineering course he teaches.
Bris is a graduate of Uninorte himself, where he earned his doctoral degree in materials science at the Uninorte institution in Spain. Now, he teaches Solid Mechanics to mechanical and civil engineering students at the Colombia institution. The idea to look for and adopt a new pedagogical environment happened when he realized two things: first, that the Solid Mechanics course has been one of the places historically high in failure and drop-out rates, and second, that the arrival of the “Ser Pilo Paga” generation has resulted in an increasing number of students registered in these classes. This brought about a tipping point, and Bris had the idea to find a better strategy to address these difficulties and motivate his students to continue participating.
This project arose as part of the teaching model known at Purdue University. “Various faculty in Dynamics classes had the idea to create a new, collaborative pedagogical style, and we wanted to replicate that”, he explains. This innovative learning environment [known as Freeform], has already been implemented among Bris’ students for two years.
Video tutorials are one of the innovative strategies implemented by the faculty. “With the help of the CEDU, we created videos to explain the problems and exercises to the students”, says Bris. “We also use an online platform similar to the one used at Purdue, as well as other interactive games like kahoot!, which enriches the learning environment. With all of this, I hoped to motivate students to participate in class, in addition to providing them with more tools to help them study on their own”, says Professor Bris.
The collaborative component inspires students to split up activities so that they can each develop an understanding of the material, and eventually create their own explanatory videos. “There is no better way to ensure you really understand something other than by having to explain it to someone else” he comments. At the same time, this allows them to grow a repository of videos for new students.
The group activities are also an essential part of the strategy, but they are not conducted in the traditional format. Bris is in charge of separating the class into groups organized by their averages, abilities, and future career desires. This helps him create heterogeneous groups comprised of students who complement one another. He highlights that everything in the implementation phase also serves to validate the methodologies he learned from the faculty at Purdue. “We continue working in conjunction [with Purdue] to find similarities and differences in the Freeform program’s results, while taking into account the different social contexts”, says the professor.
The results of the Freeform environment have been positive, says Professor Bris. The number of students who withdraw from his class has decreased from 50% to 6% per semester, and the percentage of students needing to retake the course has decreased from 60% to 30%. “More important than these figures, however, is how the true impact of the Freeform environment is reflected in the students. I’ve always believed in sharing knowledge that is essential in life, and they realize that”, says Bris. Although Professor Bris considers his profession to be one that does not bear rewards until much later in the students’ lives, he is surprised at what he has been able to achieve with his students. “My Freeform students come to me at the end of the semester and thank me for teaching, and are also much more active in the lab.”
In the future, Professor Bris hopes to continue using the Freeform strategy, and would like to see its further implementation in many more classes at Uninorte. He has the idea to design a new category of textbook guide, one with less theory and more space for students to participate. “The idea of the guide is to allow the students to practice the course themes even more. They will be able to acquire a stronger grasp of the material and be better prepared for exams.”
Jorge Bris has showcased this project at CEDU, as well as his experience in pedagogical innovation and the support he has received to implement it. He confesses that he cannot imagine “using any other teaching strategy.”
By Omar David Alvarez
 This is a Federal Government program that aims to help bright low-income students have access to the best Higher Learning Institutions.