Two Tennessee Tech engineering professors are using computer technology to combat an old problem that has relevance in K-12 as well as higher education—cheating on homework.

Craig Henderson and Richard Lowhorn say professors know it’s easy for students to get copies of homework solutions—many fraternities even keep such papers on file. So, they spent two years creating a software program that forces students to figure out homework answers on their own.

“The real emphasis is not on cheating,” Henderson said. “What we are really doing is just emphasizing practice for students—to just do problems, do problems, do problems until they are proficient at it.”

The program was designed to complement their course textbook, a mechanical engineering tome titled “Statics,” about the forces that keep objects still.

All 1,500 problems and graphics from the book went into the companion CD-ROM, “The Homework Laboratory.” But while the problems are identical to the book’s, the computer randomly varies elements in the equations.

The result: No two homework answers are the same.

The computer still can grade them as if they were. It also will allow students to try again with new variables, give helpful hints, provide ungraded practice problems and timed tests, and record the encrypted results in a full-semester tally for the professor.

The National Science Foundation saw enough promise in “The Homework Laboratory” to award a $135,000 grant to test the program in engineering classes at Tennessee Tech and the University of Texas-Austin, where the textbook’s authors, Marc Bedford and Wallace Fowler, teach.

“The main thing that was of interest to us is that it is aimed at increasing both the understanding and the retention of information,” said Eric Sheppard, an NSF program director in undergraduate education.

“It also is something that is flexible enough to have national impact. It is the type of product that could be used in other science or nonscience courses.”

The NSF-funded testing began last fall and is expected to continue this year. A component of the project is developing a comparable program for eighth- and ninth-graders.

Initial results have been encouraging.

“I plotted it for the first course and it was a pretty straight line,” Henderson said. “The people who used ‘The Homework Laboratory,’ that took the practice tests, that did well on the lab, got much higher grades in the classes.”

Students appear to like it, too.

“It is almost like another teacher to me,” said Adam Graves, a Tennessee Tech student.

“It makes me do homework,” classmate Simon Tremblay-LaRouche said.

Eric Svendsen, a senior editor at textbook publisher Prentice Hall, said lots of textbooks offer companion CDs, “but this is the first one that allows random generation of problem material. The concept is something that is applicable to a lot of other books.”

He said some bugs need to be worked out in loading the software, but “The Homework Laboratory” could be ready for market by summer.

Fowler, president-elect of the American Society of Engineering Education, said “The Homework Laboratory” is “the first set of software that has basically done something for students and for faculty members and for the academic institution itself, all in one fell swoop.”

Students can get endless practice on varied problems. They can get immediate help without waiting to see their professor. And professors, or their paid graders, don’t have all that homework to check, he said.

“This concept is so good that I expect 10 years from now you will see a lot of things like this,” Fowler said.

Tennessee Tech University

National Science Foundation

University of Texas at Austin