The Extended Brain: Teaching in the Digital Age

One of the biggest challenges for higher education is to keep up with the progress of the digital era. How can the education system take advantage of the instantaneous access to information, the “extended brain”, and the digital media? The aim of the project “Extended Brain – Curricula 2.0” by the TUM Department of Civil, Geo and Environmental Engineering is to integrate digital tools for improving the conceptual understanding and for training higher-order thinking skills, using blended learning formats and online interactive apps.

Bild: Shutterstock

Digital tools such as interactive apps can enhance students‘ learning experience. (Photo: Shutterstock)


As the digitalization is relentlessly progressing, the engineering education must constantly renew itself by identifying new contents and formats and integrating innovative didactic tools. It has to be discussed which specific contents lose their relevance for classical teaching in the light of fast accessibility of information through internet, also referred to as the “extended memory”, and can be shifted to self-study by inverted teaching formats.

For this reason, the project “The Extended Brain” was initiated. The aim of this project is to show how the „extended memory“ in form of digital tools can be integrated into the teaching of mechanics, which is perceived as one of the difficult subjects in engineering studies. For this purpose, we started a pilot project to identify relevant content which is suited to be replaced or shifted to other formats within selected modules in the field of mechanics, to categorize specific contents as factual knowledge deliverable through online lectures, to strengthen the conceptual understanding through inverted classroom formats and online interactive apps.

This interactive app shows the diffraction of planar waves at a cutting edge, important in the context of sound barriers at traffic routes. A student can intuitively understand the influence of the problem parameters on the sound power transported to the shadow area of the barrier by diffraction.1


The motivation

The power of digital “black box” tools and online information portals have revolutionized the daily work and the task horizon in many sectors, including engineering.

Engineers delegate to digital tools specific cognitive tasks that used to be exclusively human. In the education system, the use of black-box tools and online facts is often seen with skepticism.

Based on these observations, we want to investigate the possibility to shift the focus on the activation of the conceptual understanding, such as data synthesis and interpretation skills, supported by external digital tools. The students are allowed to take advantage of the “extended brain” and get familiar with the subject through a new perspective .

For example, we plan to integrate interactive apps, which translate complex mathematical formulas into interactive pictures and allow to visualize the influence of parameters on the outcome of the calculations, without the need to deal with the formulas. For the factual knowledge, we shall use online lectures for delivering specific contents.

This approach could be an example of how innovative teaching tools can be used to realign the education system with the current engineering practice.

For instance, the interactive apps combine three aspects: they summarize theories into information available online; they show the dual nature of theoretical formalisms and their visual digital representations; they encourage the use of digital tools for training the ability to understand things not perceived or visible in reality. These aspects represent three of the most important driving forces of the ongoing transformation in engineering education and practice.

The Aim

We believe that the identification of current contents that can be removed from classical teaching and the strengthening of the conceptual understanding enhances the learning experience. Inverted classrooms help to explore topics in greater depth and to personalize the learning process. The interactive apps would help students to turn a series of attempts and intuitions into actual understanding with less struggle.

Moreover, the digitalization helps to motivate students with difficulties and to strengthen the sharing of knowledge. The idea is primarily conceived for students of engineering. However, the experiences obtained can be extended to further fields of science.

The principle of conservation of momentum can be visualized with the help of a moving boat transporting the swimmers, who jump in the water. The total momentum of the system (both the boat and the swimmers) is conserved. When one of the swimmers jumps to the right, it receives momentum to the right. However, the boat (with the remaining swimmers on board) has to receive at the same instant the same amount of momentum in the left direction in order to maintain the same total momentum. The boat gets therefore accelerated. One may have experiences this phenomenon in reality and the interactivity with the app helps to project the mathematical explanation of a principle onto the personal experience, increasing acceptance. 2

The Implementation

A significant workload is involved in the editing of online videos and in the programming of the interactive apps. This work is carried out mainly by students. On the other hand, the effort for academic staff for supervising and finishing the online material up to now has been higher than expected.

The videos and apps can be used without additional installations and can be accessed at any time from a smartphone, tablet, or personal computer regardless of the operating system. They can be shown during the lecture and linked in the lecture notes.

The first part of the online material has been used for the first time during the summer semester of 2018. Therefore, its evaluation is still ongoing. Experiences about the frequency of usage and opinions of users will be available within the next months.

Tricky but Rewarding

Richard Feynman once said “One of things that make science very difficult is that it takes a lot of imagination…How can we get to know what things do, better than we do today? As the generations develop, will they invent ways of teaching, so that the new people learn a tricky way of looking at things and will not have our trouble to picture those things?”.3

With our idea of integrating digital tools in education, we try to follow Feynman’s suggestion and explore “tricky” ways of looking at things, using our trained imagination, higher-order thinking skills and an almost instantaneous access to information through the world wide web.




3 From a transcription of the TV series ‚Fun to Imagine‘ (1983) with Richard Feynman

The project „Extended Brain – Curricula 2.0“ was  awarded the TUM Teaching Endowment Fund in 2018.

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