Using”Anchored Instruction” to Teach Fundamental Bridge Engineering Principles: A Case Study

Benjamin Z. Dymond, Davis Ray, Joshua T. Hewes, John Tingerthal, Robin Tuchscherer

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


The objective of this paper is to present a case study on developing and implementing evidence-based interventions into a traditional civil engineering course of study to better teach fundamental engineering principles in the context of engineering practice. Entry-level engineers often struggle applying fundamental engineering principles acquired in their formal education to the engineering applications encountered when entering the workforce. The purpose of the interventions presented in this paper is to improve students' ability to transfer this fundamental knowledge. These interventions are based on “anchoring” the content; that is, deeply contextualizing fundamental engineering principles to one or two case studies (related to bridge engineering) throughout students' four-year course of study. Anchored learning is based on the construct of situated cognition that also forms the basis for what is widely called experiential learning. Anchored learning is founded on the notion that knowledge can be recalled when people are explicitly asked to use it as a “tool” for solving a problem. To illustrate the methodology, a local truss bridge is described in detail and then used to teach several key topics in structural engineering, including determinacy in students' statics class, normal stress in their subsequent mechanics of materials class, and the method of virtual work in their structural analysis class. Repeatedly investigating the same structure, in varying contexts and across the curriculum, increases the relevance of the underlying theories, as well as reduces student's “cognitive load” associated with learning a new concept while internally relating the analytical model to an actual structure. A key feature of this project is that the anchored learning methodology can be implemented within an already crowded engineering program of study with minimal change to the curriculum, learning outcomes, and learning objectives. This aspect is essential for the anchored instruction to be adopted. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected and used to assess the effectiveness of teaching fundamental engineering concepts with anchored instruction. A quantitative survey was deployed at the beginning and end of each anchored course to measure students' attitude toward a career in bridge engineering. Qualitative data were collected from a free response question on the survey and from interviews with student focus groups and instructors involved with courses containing anchors. Results indicated that students found bridges more interesting, had a better understanding of what a bridge engineer does, were more likely to pursue a career in bridge engineering, and could become a successful bridge engineer after being exposed to the anchored learning material. Instructors involved with deploying the anchor modules noted that implementation of four to five modules was not difficult. Both the students and instructors involved in this study noted that field trips to a local structure and inclusion of real-life bridges in the coursework are highly influential; feedback suggested that significant effort should be spent introducing the anchor case studies, with adequate detail and information, to make them more memorable and important.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Jun 25 2023
Event2023 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition - The Harbor of Engineering: Education for 130 Years, ASEE 2023 - Baltimore, United States
Duration: Jun 25 2023Jun 28 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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