Teaching First-Year Architecture Students Sustainable Construction Technology Through Active Problem-Based Learning and a Field Trip to a Sustainable Building

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2011

University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan, Puerto Rico


With the assistance of a Title III “Students First Grant,” three project-based learning techniques and a field trip were implemented into a section of Materials and Methods of Construction (CON 161) in the fall 2011 semester. In addition to enhancing the teaching of the course material including sustainable and Passive House Construction techniques, the goals of this course redesign were to engage students in learning, to build a community between students themselves and faculty, and ultimately to increase retention. This paper will examine the implementation of four active learning techniques in a freshman CON 161 lecture course. The active learning techniques implemented were: Jigsaw Learning; a field trip; student-built physical models; and visual dictionaries. It is important to note that although these activities have been tested by others at different institutions, they are new to this lecture course both as separate, project-based learning activities, and in their combination. A brief background will be given for each learning technique, including the relative benefits of each and recommendations for their use.

Class Evaluated

CON 16 is a required course for all students in both the Architecture Engineering Technology and Construction Management Engineering Technology programs in our department. It is a two-hour-and-fifty minute Monday evening lecture course that introduces students to construction material characteristics, residential and small-scale commercial building construction methods, and the construction industry as a whole. Other than a soil sieve test, CON 161 lacks a laboratory component. Assessment of student learning in this course has traditionally been either via weekly quizzes, or mid-term and final examinations. Faculty members teaching the three sections of this course normally draw construction details on the board and supplement their teaching with PowerPoint presentations, short videos, and construction material samples. The students are freshmen and mainly commute to campus from their homes on Long Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. In traditional lecture-only classes such as CON 161, there is little opportunity for students to interact or learn from each other. Two sections of CON 161 were part of the testing for two of the learning activities discussed here. One group was the control and the other the test group. Both groups were given pre-tests to ascertain their level of knowledge of the course topic being studied; following the exercise both groups were post-tested to show the effects of the teaching method used.

Jigsaw Learning

Jigsaw Learning is a cooperative learning technique invented by Elliot Aronson in 1971 in Austin, Texas. Aronson found success with this learning method by having students form groups and teach each other. In short, ‘Jigsaw’ groups are formed like a jigsaw puzzle, disbanded into ‘expert’ groups of different students, and then reformed into a ‘jigsaw’ group to share their new found knowledge with other students before being tested (Silberman, 1996, p. 111).

The following is a synopsis of the Jigsaw Learning method used in this study. In the third class of the semester, both the test group and the control group were given the same pre-test for the same duration of time. Results showed that both groups had an equal lack of knowledge of the topic to be studied. The control group, with twelve students, was given a traditional lecture for one hour followed by a post-test. The test class, with 25 students in attendance, was given the same pre-test and then divided into five ‘jigsaw’ groups” each with five students. The course topic to be studied was segmented into five equally sized segments that could be studied separately. Each student in each of the “jigsaw groups” was given one of the five topics to study. They were then instructed to join all of the students with the same topic and form an ‘expert’ group. It was their role to become an ‘expert’ in this topic and return to their “jigsaw group” to share their new knowledge. Students were also advised that they would be tested, at the end of class, on all of the topics that they learned by themselves and from the other members of their jigsaw group. Students in each of the ‘expert’ groups were given reference material to research their topic and faculty visited each ‘expert’ group and answered questions and offered assistance with presentation methods. After one hour the Jigsaw Learning class was given the same post-test as the control group.

The quantitative test results show that the Jigsaw group (mean score = 5.28) did not learn more than the control group (mean score = 8.42) that was given the traditional lecture on the same topic (LoPiccolo, 2011). Similar to this test Thompson and Pledger found “The results failed to document any significant differences in the scores of students taught by the lecture method versus students taught by Jigsaw” (1998). Slavin found that students in Jigsaw Learning sessions have limited exposure to the topic material that their team members are responsible for, so “learning gains on their own topics may be offset by losses on their group mates’ topics.” Slavin also indicated that team-building activities alone had no effect on the achievement outcomes of Jigsaw Learning (Rich, Amir, & Slavin, 1986).

A qualitative test was administered to the Jigsaw Learning class following their post-test. The average result for each of the following statements was “neither agree nor disagree” on the five-point Likert Scale:

  • I learned more working in teams than in a traditional lecture.
  • I enjoyed sharing what I learned with my team.
  • I would like part of my class time to be team based.

On average the students agreed with the following statement:

  • Working in teams allowed me time to get to know my classmates.

In an additional question regarding teaching methods preferred by students:

  • 60% of the students stated that they learned more in classes that were mainly PowerPoint lecture, note taking, and discussion.
  • 24% stated they learned more in traditional lecture, note taking, and discussion classes.
  • 16% stated they learned more in studio problem solving with short lecture and discussion classes.

The main advantage found with this Jigsaw Learning test was that it was an effective ice breaker. Recommendations for implementing Jigsaw Learning are to: examine the implementation of Jigsaw Learning for reviewing material and instituting group grades (each group member receives an average of all of the grades in their group) as an incentive for peer-to-peer teaching. The Johnsons found that the reward of group grades (based on the average of all group member individual scores) increased the achievement of students participating in Jigsaw Learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1994).

Field Trip to the Visitor and Administration Center, Queens Botanical Garden, NY

To enhance their classroom introduction to sustainable construction methods a class field trip to the Visitor and Administration Center at the Queens Botanical Garden (QBG) in Flushing, Queens, New York was arranged. Designed by Joan Krevlin (BSKS Architects) and opened in September 2007, this building was one of the first public LEED Platinum buildings built in New York and is a showcase for a number of sustainable construction techniques including passive solar design, local and recycled materials used, geothermal system and rainwater harvesting. The admission and tour fee were covered by the Students First Grant and the students were required to make their own travel arrangements. Students were further encouraged to attend in order to take photographs for their Visual Dictionary project (see below). Although nineteen of the 27 students in the class confirmed in writing that they would attend (eight students had other commitments such as other classes or work), only twelve were present on the day. The students in attendance were surveyed after the field trip and they unanimously ‘strongly agreed’ that the visit was a worthwhile educational experience. Recommendations for field trips are: arrange transportation; if possible make the visit during class time; make field trip attendance a course requirement; and design a separate project that is dependent on visiting the location in person with the class. It is interesting to note that many of the students who did not attend the field trip with the class did visit the QBG by themselves at a later date. This was evident as they were in the photographs taken at this location for their individual Visual Dictionary projects which was submitted at the end of the semester.

Building Materials Visual Dictionary

The Building Materials Visual Dictionary project is an adaptation of the many published visual dictionaries available in book form and online (Broto, 2008; Ching, 1996; Merriam-Webster). Topics discussed, shown and drawn in class are reinforced through this method. The following is a brief outline for the Building Materials Visual Dictionary project as given to the CON 161 course in fall 2011.

“Using PowerPoint, each student is to create a visual and text definition on a slide for each of the construction terms listed below. Note:

  • Each student is to be clearly visible in each of the photos depicting each of the terms at the time it is taken. No digitally or otherwise re-mastered photos.
  • Each student presentation is to have a title slide listing the student name, all items printed above this paragraph and an index of slides in the order prescribed.
  • There are 25 items to be defined and photographed. Each slide is to have a definition and a photograph. Both the definition and the photograph must be correct to obtain the full 1% of final grade per slide.
  • This project is worth 25% of your final grade” (LoPiccolo, 2011a).

On the submission date for this project, we randomly picked four projects and reviewed them as a group. In the follow-up survey at the end of the semester, 78% students strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “The Visual Dictionary of Building Materials Project was a good learning experience for this course.”

Physical Model Building: Advanced Framing

Contero et al. found that there are three important instructional elements for the future engineer: “spatial visualization, freehand sketching and normalized view generation (2006).” Spatial reasoning is “the mental manipulation of objects and their parts in 2D and 3D space” (Olkun, 2003). Model building is one of the teaching methods used to improve spatial reasoning.

Student-built physical models have not been incorporated into CON 161, a non-design course, for many years until they were re-introduced recently for this study. First semester freshmen students in our programs have not yet taken 3D computer modeling classes, so their spatial abilities have not yet been developed or assessed in class.

In order to ascertain if students’ spatial reasoning would be improved by building models, a student-built physical model project was incorporated into CON 16 in the fall of 2011. Two sections of CON 161, were given a standardized spatial reasoning ability test. The test results for both groups indicated that they had approximately equal knowledge of spatial reasoning ability prior to the study. Students in one section of CON 16 were given a project to create a scaled physical model of the corner framing of an Advanced Framed building. In contrast, the other group of students (the control group) was instructed to produce an axonometric drawing of the same framed corner, within the same time duration and at the same scale as the test group’s model. Both groups were given the spatial reasoning post-test after their projects were submitted. As an aside, Advanced Framing saves on lumber and is more energy efficient than traditional platform frame construction due to the increased stud space and less framing on the exterior shell of the building. This framing technique can be used on buildings constructed to higher energy efficiency standards such as Energy Star for Homes and Passive House construction.

The quantitative test results for this project showed that students who built the physical model achieved on average a 29.42% higher spatial reasoning test score than the control group who had drawn the framing only. The qualitative survey results showed that 78% of the test students agreed or strongly agreed that the model building project increased their knowledge of how an Advanced Framing project is constructed.


The incorporation of three of the learning activities, namely the Building Material Visual Dictionary, the class field trip, and the student-built physical model project, has proven to be successful to students’ grades, their relationship with each other and their professor. These activities will be continued in this course with the recommendations included above. The Jigsaw Learning activity was a beneficial “ice breaker” exercise and will be used again early in the semester and repeated later in the semester as a group review exercise with group grades. Further tests will be conducted in these teaching techniques and new activities in the future with the goal of improving student learning, bonding, and retention.


Aronson, E. (2000-2012). History of Jigsaw. Retrieved from http://www.jigsaw.org/history.htm

Broto, C. (2007). Visual Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Barcelona, Spain: Links International.

Ching, F. (2011). A Visual Dictionary of Architecture (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Contero, M., Company, P., Saorin, J. L, & Naya, F. (2006). Learning Support Tools for Developing Spatial Abilities in Engineering Design.M International Journal of Engineering Education, 22(3, 1-12. Retrieved from http://www.regeo.uji.es/publicaciones/CCSN05.pdf

Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1994). Learning together and alone: Cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

LoPiccolo, O. (2011a). Materials and Methods of Construction I Building Material Visual Dictionary.

LoPiccolo, O. (2011b). Testing Jigsaw Learning Against a Traditional Lecture, Proceedings from the American Society for Engineering Education Fall 2011 Conference. Retrieved from https://www.asee.org/papers-and-publications/papers/section-proceedings/middle-atlantic/Fall_2011.pdf

Merriam-Webster. (2009). Online Visual Dictionary. Retrieved from http://visual.merriam-webster.com/

Olkun, S. (2003). Making Connections: Improving Spatial Abilities with Engineering Drawing Activities. International Journal of Mathematics Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from http://www.cimt.plymouth.ac.uk/journal/sinanolkun.pdf

Silberman, M.(1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teaching any subject. Boston, MA : Allyn and Bacon.

Rich, Y., Amir, Y., & Slavin, R.E. (1986). Instructional strategies for improving children’s cross-ethnic relations. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University, Institute for the Advancement of Social Integration in the Schools.

Thompson, M. & Pledger, L. (1998). Cooperative Learning Versus traditional Lecture Format: A Preliminary Study. Paper presented at the 84th Annual Meeting of the National Communications Association.

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