Expanding Educational Frontiers
How a group of students and a forward-thinking professor arrived at a novel teaching technology


Large foundational classes are an economic necessity for almost all universities, but this reality flies in the face of another: often, the larger the class, the less students learn. Frustrated by this double bind and faced with some challenging material to teach, professors in Mines' Physics Department have been exploring innovative teaching technologies for some time. Led by Professor Frank Kowalski, this quest has taken several interesting turns and culminated in the development of one particularly innovative technology, thanks in large part to a group of ingenious and hardworking students.

The first significant step was taken in 2002, when the department won a Colorado Commission of Higher Education Program of Excellence Award to equip some of their larger lecture halls and classrooms with "clickers"--small wireless devices that electronically transmit student responses to a given question and make the answer distribution instantly available.

Giving professors the ability to instantly assess student understanding, the clicker system was a success and is now widely used on the Mines campus. In fact, five years after being introduced, several classes require that students purchase their own clickers, which are available at the bookstore. Professors find that the technology engages students more actively in lectures and provides helpful feedback on what students do and do not understand. However, the system is limited to multiple-choice questions (or, in some cases, short numeric answers).

By "imaging" a single computer, TICC was able to save
time and achieve consistent results. (Note the time this
photo was taken--they didn't get much sleep that night.)

After using clickers for a few years, Kowalski wanted to explore how to assess student understanding more deeply. "A clicker tells you whether the student can or can't solve the problem, but if they can't, it doesn't tell you why," said Kowalski. He wanted to be able to pose open-format problems and see how students went about solving them.

To this end, he submitted a request to HP's Technology for Teaching Grant Initiative to equip each of the 60 students in his class with a tablet computer, which allows the user to write on the screen. "The language of math and science is graphical," said Kowalski. "You can't work through a complex problem using a keyboard, so regular laptops weren't an option." His plan for what he'd do if the request was granted was conceptual: "Since students could work problems out on the screens, and the PCs had wireless capability, I reasoned there must be a way to get their work to my computer at the front of the class for rapid review." But when the department won the grant, the nuts and bolts proved quite challenging as there was no suitable software available on the market.

Instead of trying to tackle the problem himself, Kowalski invited students to take it on. A group of physics majors volunteered and the Technology in the Classroom Committee (TICC) was formed. Kowalski never provided a detailed plan for how the computers would operate, giving TICC free rein to design the best teaching tool they could. They simply had to turn 60 HP tablet computers into an interactive teaching tool that took advantage of the unique features of the computer. Jim Vanides, the worldwide higher education grants program manager for HP, spoke of the novelty of Kowalski's approach: "Recruiting students to develop the teaching technology was brilliant. I don't know of any other projects that took it on from that angle," he said.

TICC ultimately created what is now called InkSurvey--a web-based tool for compiling images generated on a tablet PC. The software enables students to post handwritten responses (equations, graphs, diagrams, derivations, etc.) to a website, which can then be viewed instantly by the professor. Vanides, who has seen a wide range of instructional software, spoke in glowing terms of InkSurvey: "It's the assessment tool that educators have been looking for forever, because if you know what the students are thinking right now, you can help them. If you wait a week, chances are you're not going to help them."

The journey from the HP grant to the launch of InkSurvey was not easy, but at each turn, difficulty bred creativity. When members of TICC first approached HP for advice on how to install both Linux and Windows on the computers, the students were told it couldn't be done on this hardware. Responding in true Mines fashion, they took this to mean it wouldn't be easy, and two weeks later, they had solved the problem. Funding was another challenge: they had almost none. But by writing their own code and relying on free software available on the internet, they creatively assembled a robust system at minimal cost. Loading the same software on all 60 of the PCs also posed problems. In the end, they prepared one computer and copied that image to the rest. And to help other students optimize their use of the tablet, TICC created a wiki--a document accessed online that can be edited and refined by any user--with documentation and instructions on how to use the software. Instructional support was provided through an online forum, which Kowalski monitored closely.

Frank Kowalski worked closely on this project with his wife, Susan, who is the project coordinator for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education Program of Excellence Award. They are both very proud of what TICC has accomplished and are delighted with how InkSurvey operates in the classroom. "It's so much easier to clear up misconceptions as students are working on a problem," said Frank Kowalski. "After I pose a problem, I go to my instructor's website and review responses as they come in. After just a handful have been submitted, I'll identify common errors and stop students to address the misunderstanding. Each time I refresh my webpage, I collect more responses, and these guide additional comments. It's a remarkably powerful tool. I can see exactly where students are confused and where to focus my instruction. And if I see that some students are two steps ahead, I make an additional, more challenging problem available for them to work on. It's as close to one-on-one teaching as you can get with a class of 60."

Hilary Brown, a senior majoring in physics, took Kowalski's class in the spring and saw the technology at work first hand: "Dr. Kowalski offered hints to help us along during the allotted time. He was obviously going through and figuring out where we had problems applying concepts. And as we mastered concepts, he'd ask us to apply the concept to a new problem, or to set up a new problem. He could match the pace of instruction with the rate at which we were learning."

The image below illustrates the instructor's view as
student's work is submitted to the InkSurvey website.

Knowing that TICC had come up with something quite remarkable, Kowalski asked HP to sponsor travel expenses for some of the founding members of TICC to showcase InkSurvey at their 2006 Educational Technology Conference in Monterey, CA. A little skeptical at first, Vanides agreed to arrange for six mini-sessions on various aspects of the project. "Sometimes students come along to conferences in a support role for professors. But the Mines students ran their own show entirely, and they created a genuine buzz of excitement. I think they were the highlight of the whole conference," said Vanides, who invited the group back for an encore performance at the 2007 conference.

InkSurvey clearly has great commercial value (evidenced by the number of informal job offers TICC members received at the HP conference). However, the students are adamant that access to InkSurvey and their website (http://ticc.mines.edu) remain free. "We're from a scientific background. We didn't do this to make money. We're just interested in seeing the software get used," explained Erich Hoover, a founding member of TICC who is now a graduate student in Engineering. Fellow TICC member and graduate student David Murrell echoed these sentiments: "The bottom line is that we had almost no funding, and other colleges that get this grant or buy the tablets aren't likely to have much either. We got a lot out of the experience. And we were all well fed--Susan Kowalski is a great cook!"

With so much of their energy invested, members of TICC are gratified that the word is spreading. Professor Jane Dong of the Electrical Engineering Department at California State University Los Angeles uses InkSurvey in her freshman engineering design course. "It's very empowering," she says. "I believe it's a teaching model that will have a huge impact on science and engineering education in the future."

Frank Kowalski is equally optimistic about the integration of technology in education. "The effective use of technology in the classroom is still a relatively immature field. InkSurvey is a significant advance in addressing the needs of each student in a large class setting. With our need for good engineers and scientists greater than ever, those institutions that deliver a better learning experience will be in high demand. For me, it is exciting to have found a new way to enhance learning, and the process itself has been most rewarding. It wouldn't have been accomplished without this remarkable group of students who were willing to volunteer their talents to develop and move the project forward."


What Makes them TICC

  • Luke Campagnola '03
  • Sidney Cox '07
  • Erich Hoover '07 (current graduate student)
  • Mike Hurowitz '07
  • David Murrell (current grad student in the five year BS/MS Physics Program)
  • Thomas Wells '07 (current graduate student)

Tal Atlas '07, Nicolas Bailey, Paul Boschert, Elliot Grafil, Andrew Hubl, Ben Jones, Kenton Larson and Michael Young

Frank Kowalski, Susan Kowalski