Dr. Ronald Dotson Program Rigor through Student Engagement

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Dr. Ron DotsonBy: Dr. Ronald G Dotson Ed. D

Occupational Safety and Health Program Coordinator
Eastern Kentucky University


This article reviews the current program philosophy of curriculum delivery utilized at Eastern Kentucky University in the Occupational Safety and Health Program. The topic of student engagement is addressed from explaining educational maturity, practical application as rigor, and highlighting examples of assignments used in on campus and online courses.

Program Rigor through Student Engagement

Creating a quality educational experience for the student requires engaging the student in ways that increase participation. When students are engaged in ways that motivate them to learn intrinsically, retention is increased. Its application to practice that creates the student engagement in the Occupational Safety and Health Program at Eastern Kentucky University. The EKU OSH Program has three core philosophies that drive curriculum development. Assignments are created to engage students from the belief in educational maturity, the development of character and skill, and application to practice as defining rigor. These core values combine to present a student oriented experience.

Educational maturity is the growth of a person from total reliance on a teacher to deliver all knowledge to performing original research and self-learning. Educational maturity is independent of age. Students in secondary education levels rely on teachers to deliver all knowledge and precise step by step instructions. Students earning a bachelor’s degree learn to progressively take initiative to further research topics, be creative in solutions, and apply learned skills or materials. As a student progresses from undergraduate through graduate levels of education, they learn to conduct research in ways that create an environment of increased self-learning and new contribution to fields of study.

In 2007 the OSH curriculum took a directional change. It was to be progressive in nature and based upon application to practice, or a job task analysis. Progressive development meant that from class to class delivered material would be presented as built upon from the previous course as much as possible. One example is that OSH 261 covers the fundamental principles of the program. When addressing workplace investigations students are introduced to defining failure, root cause analysis, basic incident break down, and most importantly, handling involved persons. Investigation skills are enhanced with specific hazard and hazard mitigation skill in 262, 366, 367, and 379. OSH 410 challenges students to develop core pieces of a safety management system that addresses reactive and proactive investigations. Many schools rely on a semester long investigations course, EKU students must build upon investigation skills culminating at the senior capstone course.

It is not an easy task to decide which skills are to be covered in each class. EKU relied upon faculty experience and the input from an advisory board of successful safety professionals. This may not be unique to higher education at all. But what was unique at EKU was the same dedication to character development. Based upon leadership traits like initiative, commitment, honesty, integrity, discipline, courage, humility, justice, and others, curriculum was to be delivered in a way to encourage the development and display of leadership traits. One example of this strategy appears as vague directions to some assignments that might otherwise include specific directions for formatting, material, or structure. Students are not punished for taking any initiative for creativity based upon agreement with instructors in these areas. Students are then encouraged to make new document designs, include more or different materials, or develop new methods and ideas for management, policy, and practice. Progressive help is also another method for challenging students. Students in the beginning of a lesson period begin attacking a new task with only a facilitated set of information. Those with experience or with much creativity take the assignment and run with it. The middle group needs a little guidance or encouragement. Lastly, as the period progresses, those requiring more help can be given specific examples. This is more work for an online instructor requiring staying more in touch with the online class, but avoids stifling creativity and teaches students to take initiative.

Many times students and faculty get confused that rigor means the difficulty of passing a course or obtaining a good grade. In fact, it is the job of a teacher to break down complex information into easily understood sections. Education is more relevant to practice when practitioners are involved in curriculum design, as with Occupational Safety and Health here at EKU. Application to practice is being called upon more and more to be a central criteria for examining the rigor involved in curriculum. Recently, Gutierrez and Penuel published an article on researching rigor and called for more methods to measure relevance to practice (Gutierrez & Penuel, 2014).

Rigor in Assignments

An effort to ensure that assignments are relevant to practice rather than recitation of general material that would one day be relied upon indirectly in practice requires creative effort and increased attention to student readiness. Many times the complete answer or path to the answer has not been provided directly, but hinted at by the instructor in a method that is akin to facilitation. To many students it becomes baptism by fire. The student is expected to take initiative and help in their own learning to put together the knowledge and skills to accomplish the goal. The instructor then aids based upon the individual student’s needs. Much of this is driven by time. Courses that last for 8 weeks require the designer to assess that target audience, assess what skills are needed and what are nice to cover, in order to design assignments and lessons that don’t give away the answer yet allow the teaching moment to occur.

Several key examples of this are present in the OSH curriculum. For example, in OSH 261 students are challenged with producing a job hazard analysis in week 1 from watching one of two videos. Students can select the vehicle fire response video or the eye splicing video. Both are exemplary videos of real situations that safety professionals commonly experience. The vehicle fire response challenges students to utilize the job hazard analysis technique as a unique method to perform safety reviews of tactical situations in order to produce training and resource needs. The eye splicing video replicates an industrial or construction type setting where a safety professional is using observation to aid in performing the hazard analysis. Students may have to watch the video several times on order to identify the critical steps, corresponding hazards, and perform some additional research on unfamiliar material in order to complete. Although hazard recognition, a 100 or 200 level skill, has not been covered, the student is expected to be able to catch onto the concept. The skills will be expanded on throughout the program. Safety professionals must be able to perform similar tasks with a multitude of technical trades that they are not masters on themselves.

Conducting hands on assignments has been a goal of the program for some time. Filling out OSHA 300 forms, producing logs for tracking statistical data, producing policy and safety programs, producing audit instruments, recognizing ergonomic features, recognizing controls and human interaction, conducting investigations, are all examples of practical tasks of safety professionals and examples of assignments in the OSH curriculum. Take for example the practical exercise in OSH 367 involving the recognition of the types of controls in a work environment. The student is briefly introduced to the types of machine controls and feedback from each control in a video lecture. The assignments involved the identification of these controls and feedback utilizing a vehicle. Although a vehicle is not typical of all work stations, it is available to all students and presents the challenge of applying the skill to any work station. It is an example of creatively using common available materials for producing hands on application of skill rather than reciting knowledge in a multiple choice setting.

Students in the senior capstone course learn to tie the learned material from many courses together to complete assignments. One of the highlights of this course is the application of incident mapping and root cause analysis on recreated factual events. Students must be able to apply investigational skills via an online environment. Learning to map multiple-causation utilizing the Bowtie Model enhances the safety manager’s ability to provide continual improvement and an enhanced accuracy rating to an investigations program.  Figure 1 below represents on possible use of the Bowtie or Butterfly model of incident mapping.


Bowtie Model


OSH 379 is packed with as many hands on exercises that can be developed for an online setting. Original pictures are used in the exercise that tasks the student with identify the signs of an underground utility or encumbrance as one example. Another assignment tasked students with inspection of heavy equipment to identify compliance issues using digital photographs of actual equipment. Figure 2 below challenges students to identify the indicator of a possible utility in the bank of a planned excavation project.

Figure 2

Utility Indicator

On campus courses can have some different labs or assignments. This past semester OSH 262, which concentrates on general industry regulations, culminated with a final project where students performed a slip, trip, and fall assessment for a location on campus. Students were specifically tasked with identifying typical factors and issues that increase the potential for an “STF”, but also had to make behavior observations, interview users of the location, and utilize an English XL tribometer to calculate a slip index rating of the surface for dry and wet (water contaminated) conditions. Students filmed the use of the tribometer. The future implication for OSH 262 in the online setting is to utilize filmed lab experiences on campus for use as virtual assignments. Figure 3 shows placement of an English XL tribometer for measuring slip index.

Figure 3

English XL Tribometer

The addition of the new safety lab facilities at EKU promise the partnership between safety product manufacturers, vendors, and private or public customers to make the safety laboratory an actual hub for joint projects and studies. This month Orr Safety and 3M provided hands on training to faculty members from the Occupational Safety and Environment Health Science Departments in order to certify faculty as technicians for using the 3M EARfit System for hearing conservation labs. The vision is to expand virtual use of technology in the labs to the online setting. Beth Browning, Senior Account Representative for 3M and Dan Horsey, Senior Account Manager for Orr Safety, promise a working partnership for providing services to both students and industry customers. The addition of a safety lab makes a more rigorous curriculum possible for both on campus and online curriculum. Figure 4 shows a subject being tested with the EARfit System for personal noise attenuation.

Figure 4

3M EARfit System

As technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality progress at EKU, assignments in the online classrooms also promises a more hands on approach to learning safety. Assignments such as equipment inspections in OSH 379 may actually be conducted with an online student using a 3 dimensional model of the exact piece of equipment. Assignments utilizing digital photographs have the capability to use models compatible with smart devices.

Rigor in the OSH Program at EKU is destined to increase. The underlying teaching philosophies of relevance to practice, educational maturity, and concurrent development of character and skill guide the approach to student engagement via assignments. The additions of the safety lab facilities provide avenues for a gain in program rigor that previously was not attainable. The opportunities for students to engage with private and public safety entities will also provide additional learning experiences, co-operative education abilities, and career opportunities. As the EKU OSH Family grows, students, staff, and faculty will benefit from learning with each other in a rigorous curriculum.

Learn More

Learn to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions and risks through a bachelor of science in occupational safety online. At Eastern Kentucky University, you will gain a graduate-level education by industry-experienced educators and fire and safety professionals who are committed to teaching and preparing you for continued success.


Gutierrez, K.D. & Penuel, W.R. (2014). Relevance to Practice as a Criterion for Rigor. Educational Researcher, 43(1),19-23.