Liebenberg's mini-projects spark deep learning in students

Nov 10, 2020, 11:04 AM

After the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana closed its campus in the middle of the Spring 2019 semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing students to continue their learning remotely, Leon Liebenberg worried about the effect it would have on his charges' educational experience.

When Liebenberg, a Teaching Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering (MechSE), and his teaching assistants reached out to some of them to see how they were coping with the transition, many of his concerns were confirmed.

  • It was difficult to work in the same environment all day.
  • Online labs didn't have the same impact as in-person labs, where they could do hands-on activities.
  • Sharing design ideas virtually was difficult.

“I think it’s quite clear that students, in general, are experiencing significant challenges,” Liebenberg said, adding that in addition to the pandemic, this shift was taking place in the midst of economic, social, and political unrest. “All of these combined pressures are proving to be a massive challenge to education.”

Liebenberg’s comments came during his presentation, “Exciting Students for Deep Learning,” which kicked off the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s new Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series, during which CITL Faculty Fellows and others discuss the art – and science – of teaching and learning.

Liebenberg, a second-year Faculty Fellow, shared his creative solution for addressing the whole student through cognitive, emotional and self-directed learning – using mini-projects to engage students in theory-heavy content; spark their own innovation and creativity to solve real-world problems and deepen their learning; and motivate them to continue their learning even after they’d completed their course.

At the start of his presentation, Liebenberg asked the 50 or so attendees to share their experiences as remote-learning instructors. While a few shared bright moments of engagement and other positives, others admitted that teaching to two audiences (online and in class) was difficult, they didn’t like “policing” group work, and students were “ghosting” or falling asleep in class.

Liebenberg said that in order for complex information to resonate, whether taught online or in the traditional classroom environment, students have to experience it on an emotional level, and take a more active role in learning the material by teaching themselves.

The mini-projects he created for his ME270: Design for Manufacturability and ME 200: Thermodynamics courses activated students on all of these levels. He explained how he broke his classes into small diverse teams, with different types of learners on each team; made learning performative by having students create short videos to introduce themselves and create ePortfolios to document their work; and broke the syllabus into bite-size chunks, where each team would do a self-directed mini-project for each chunk. Every two weeks, teams would tackle another mini-project that built upon what they had learned previously.

Projects entailed disassembling existing products in their home, and for instance, figuring out how to bend sheet metal into different forms by folding and cutting notches into pieces of cardboard (low-fidelity prototyping).

“Each of these … entailed students having to do rigorous research,” Liebenberg said of the mini-projects, adding they also required self-reflection, peer grading, and celebrating each others’ work.

When Liebenberg challenged students to connect what they had learned to their lives outside of class – or other people’s lives – by creating projects to solve real-world challenges, they delivered.

“They used broomsticks, vacuum cleaners, snorkel masks, and repurposed them as an N95 mask,” he said, proudly, adding others created an emergency ventilator and steam box to disinfect masks and other items.

Liebenberg said the scaffolded mini-projects not only brought out the creativity in students, but healthy competition. And after the class ended, a few continued doing projects, including a 20-page Design for Recycling comic book, on their own.

“As instructors, we should always find ways to make learning – whether online or in the classroom environment, intrinsically rewarding,” Liebenberg said.

“If students become passionate about learning something, they will do things outside of the classroom with very little prompting,” added the professor, who encouraged all educators to rethink educational practices and remake them to create deeper and richer learning experiences for students.

Liebenberg’s slides and a recording of his presentation can be viewed at:

The Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series takes place from 12 to 1 pm on the first Thursday of each month through May, excluding January. Join us on December 3 when Judith Pintar (iSchool) and Dan Steward (Sociology) present “Immersion and Engagement: Teaching through Games & Simulations.” Register to receive a zoom link at:

To learn more about the The Art of Teaching, please visit the website at: To suggest a speaker/topic for the series, contact Ava Wolf at: