SPECIAL SECTION: Engineering Education Today: Forces of Change
- The Wicked and the Intractable
- Bench Strength
- Sticking Points
- Inside the Walls
- A Laser Focus on Job-Ready Graduates
- A ‘Grand Challenge’ Curriculum
- Quiet Rebellion
- Growth Curve
- Pace of Change
Cover Design by Nicola Nittoli
Feature Design by Francis Igot
Cover images courtesy of Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado and Getty Images
The Wicked and the Intractable
A host of world problems demands engineering solutions. Are educators ready to deliver what students need?
By Mary Lord
Today’s engineering students face stiff pressures. Just about every global problem they will encounter—from cancer to climate change—has an engineering dimension as well as a growing array of technological tools to master. Schools have responded with a proliferation of programs in emerging subfields. Some may become full-fledged disciplines; others will disappear. But the rapid pace of change and complexity means that many of the skills today’s graduates possess could soon prove obsolete. For engineering educators, that poses a grand challenge: how to equip students with the core knowledge they will need throughout their careers while simultaneously training them to become lifelong learners.
“Basically, wicked problems in engineering education boil down to preparing our students to grapple with wicked problems in engineering,” says Lisa Benson, a professor of engineering and science education at Clemson University and editor of the Journal of Engineering Education. That’s a tall order. For years, researchers and reformers have grappled with a different, equally formidable set of issues focused mainly on creating and sustaining change at the departmental or institutional level to improve teaching, increase retention, diversify the workforce, and train the next generation of academics. Faculty members have managed to overhaul entire programs, redesign introductory courses around engaging design projects, ditch lectures, and embrace online learning—all with the aim of boosting rigor, retention, and student success.
Yet the record of education researchers in getting their proven innovations into the classroom has been mixed at best. Two leaders in the field, ASEE Fellows Richard Felder, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University, and his wife, Rebecca Brent, president of Education Designs Inc., point to several that have become mainstream practice. Chief among them: active learning. This technique, which integrates problem solving, brainstorming, and other participatory components into classes, “now is found in at least some classrooms in almost every engineering school” notes Felder. That was not the case 10 years ago, when a poll of who used the technique in their classes drew mostly blank stares from his and Brent’s workshop participants. “If four hands in the room went up, we were lucky,” recalls Felder. These days, half to three-quarters typically raise their hands. Maker spaces have proliferated to the point where they’re a key stop on campus tours, providing students with authentic, hands-on design experiences. And project-based learning—propelled by pioneering ASEE research on its impact on retention—has “reinvigorated” first-year engineering along with distance learning, which Felder calls “one of the game changers” in opening engineering education to a broader, more diverse population of students.
On the downside, despite decades of costly National Science Foundation-sponsored efforts to broaden participation, only a relative handful of schools has achieved near-parity between men and women. Nationwide, the percentage of women majoring in engineering is stuck in the low 20s. African-Americans remain underrepresented at every level, particularly faculty. And improved instruction has yet to yield dramatic, across-the-board increases in graduation rates. “The energy for most educational reform efforts often lasts as long as the money lasts,” observes National Effective Teaching Institute co-director and ASEE Fellow Michael Prince, a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University. “There are places where there is significant energy in the short term, but these types of things typically have disappeared after funding disappears, with arguably little real impact on the broader community.”
Prince has spent much of the past decade studying why it’s so difficult to move research into practice. A major reason, he concludes, is NSF’s and the engineering education community’s “naïve change model.” The long-held presumption was that documenting an innovation’s superior outcomes and presenting the data will persuade faculty to immediately abandon comfortable routines. “That’s not how change happens”—particularly in academia’s “surprisingly conservative culture,” where the motto could be “slow change is good, and no change is better,” says Prince. “Change is much more of an emotional process than a cognitive one” and involves individual, institutional, and cultural contexts. Even the most persuasive body of research can sound like a personal indictment by scolding know-it-alls and provoke push-back. Explains Prince: “The message they hear is you’re a bad teacher, you’ve been teaching badly for 30 years, and I’m going to teach you to do it right.”
An ecosystem approach, including tapping expertise outside of engineering education, might help speed the broader adoption of research-proven practices. Prince urges working with sociologists and psychologists, among others, and “recognizing the limits of our own backgrounds.” Because change is “very uncomfortable,” he adds, “it has to start with significant discomfort and dissatisfaction with the current system.” Otherwise innovations won’t gain traction beyond a handful of engineering classrooms.
Engineering education may have reached such a tipping point. Prince cites the need to “attract and retain a broad array of students and create a culture that does not drive them out” as an imperative in an era when high school enrollments are shrinking even as students grow more diverse. Dissatisfaction with the status quo could drive significant change. Milwaukee School of Engineering faculty understand the demographic challenge. “If we want to have students at our schools, we need to be looking at ways to help them,” says Sheila Ross, associate professor and electrical engineering program director, who overhauled her courses to make them accessible to “neurodiverse” students with attention or other learning challenges. “We need to be in full retention mode.” Prince sees equity and inclusion becoming “the new, hot thing” that will rally the engineering education community. “Change makes change easier.” Meanwhile, the most exciting experimentation continues to unfold “without fanfare and a whole lot of bucks” at small, teaching-focused schools like his as well as in individual classrooms and institutions like the ones profiled in this package. By applying research to change practice, these pioneers show it’s possible to prepare graduates who can tackle not just today’s problems but tomorrow’s—no matter how wicked.
Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.
© Bucknell University
Engineering schools borrow the college-athletics playbook to tackle admissions barriers and recruit more diverse talent.
By Mary Lord
As an engineering educator, Beth Myers knows the value of data in driving practice. She also has learned how numbers can unfairly determine who gets to become an engineer. Before earning a Ph.D. in civil engineering and serving in several research and administrative posts at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Myers worked in admissions. Her brief: Recruit more women and students of color. Increased outreach spurred applications, yet the percentages barely budged. The reason: Many otherwise qualified candidates—particularly first-generation college-goers and those from rural or low-income families—fell short of the engineering program’s minimum ACT or GPA threshold for acceptance.
“We can’t win this with just recruitment,” Myers, now the university’s assistant vice provost for student success, recalls thinking. “There are not enough racial and ethnic minorities with test scores to get past” the gatekeepers. The experience propelled her to graduate school—and launched a two-decade effort to identify, quantify, and change admissions policies that block promising future engineers with challenging backgrounds from taking to the field. Today, thanks to a program based on “redshirting” in college sports that provides extra support and practice drills for underdeveloped recruits, underrepresented minority students make up 25 percent of CU Boulder’s first-year engineering class. Now in its tenth year, the Engineering GoldShirt Program graduates some of the college’s top performers and has become a model for engineering schools nationwide. Other admission-policy changes have narrowed the gender gap dramatically.
“Diversity begins with who is admitted,” says Beth Holloway, the assistant dean for diversity and engagement and director of the women in engineering program at Purdue University, a pioneer in this field. Colorado and Purdue are among eight exemplars, including the Universities of Maryland and Washington, Iowa State University, and Texas A&M, participating this June in a National Academy of Engineering workshop on transforming admission practices to promote diversity. Holloway, an ASEE board member, is on the workshop planning committee.
“There are things happening at schools that we don’t know about,” says NAE senior program officer Beth Cady. In some cases, people don’t know why they’re working—just that they do. Cady is organizing the workshop as a way to foster a national conversation. Among the barriers to putting best practices in place, she suggests, may be institutional and faculty resistance to change and a view of diversity as a “zero sum game just because you’re letting in more marginalized populations.”
If anything, reengineering the admissions process has led to higher retention rates, reduced time to graduation, and greater student success at schools that have attempted it. Before the University of Washington changed its outmoded system, in which undergraduates applied for a limited number of spots in each department after two years of taking general engineering courses, only half got into any discipline. “It was brutal,” says Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and the college’s associate dean of diversity and access, whose department often rejected an even greater share of applicants. When she and her colleagues looked further, they found the admissions ax fell disproportionately on first-generation, low-income, and other students who typically enter with poor science and math preparation. “All they saw was the GPA” and not how far an applicant had come, laments Riskin. “Our system was taking those students, putting them through the wringer, and filtering them out.”
The data underscored the need for change and marshaled support for combining forces with Washington State University to tap Colorado’s expertise and create a similar pathway into engineering—known as STARS, for STate Academic RedShirt—in 2012. Fueled by a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant four years later, this grassroots movement blossomed into a Redshirt in Engineering Consortium that includes Boise State University, the University of California-San Diego, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Programs are tailored to each school’s unique student population and needs but have seven common elements focused on improving engagement, retention, and graduation rates of underrepresented students. Components include “intrusive” academic advising and support services, an intensive first-year experience, faculty mentors, community building, and career awareness. “It’s a way to deal with lack of opportunity,” says Riskin, the principal investigator. The consortium’s goal: six-year graduation rates of 60 percent to 75 percent.
At UW, progress has been remarkable. Far from foundering, STARS students—the vast majority of whom are economically disadvantaged and much more diverse than UW’s engineering student body—often top the curve. They consistently have outperformed peers with similar backgrounds in prerequisite courses, earning higher average grades in subjects like calculus, computer science, and chemistry, for example. “That was a wonderful surprise,” says Riskin, who sends a congratulations every time one makes the dean’s list and delights that graduates include the child of migrant farmworkers who earned a degree in computer science. She credits STARS director and co-PI Sonya Cunningham with insisting on high academic expectations from the outset. STARS students reside in a living-learning community their first two years. They study together, bring each other to office hours, and encourage strugglers to hang on. As a result, retention and graduation rates have surged to 76 percent for the first six cohorts—higher than the average nationally and for the engineering college overall, with its more privileged population. “That’s hard to argue with!” says Riskin.
Part of UW’s recipe for success includes induction. Potential STARS recruits are sent fliers alerting them to this alternative pathway into engineering and encouraged to apply. The application includes four essays, with information sessions to address students’ concerns about workloads or whether engineering is really for them. Cunningham also holds a two-week bridge program to ease their transition to college—unlike their peers, STARS students may not have attended a summer science camp or stepped foot on campus before. “It’s like a tiny, private universe within a large university, with lots of research opportunities, internships, culture, plus resources,” says Riskin, who enjoys being able to “make a difference and help people find their pathway”—particularly hardworking young men and women who are “thankful for an opportunity” and “going on to wonderful careers” in such prestigious companies as Amazon, IBM, and Tesla.
Heads of the Class
Other engineering schools have witnessed dramatic strides. Colorado’s GoldShirt initiative, launched in 2009, has welcomed 374 engineering students who initially were denied admission—including some of the college’s most sought-after graduates. Now housed within the Broadening Opportunity through Leadership and Diversity (BOLD) Center, which supports underrepresented engineering students from first year until graduation with community-building experiences, scholarships, tutoring, and industry networking, the program includes letting the engineering school review and override rejected applications for underrepresented students. Reviewers look for transcripts that reveal a passion and aptitude for engineering beyond lackluster ACT scores or grades and ask whether test scores reflect ability or the rural school’s resources. Poor math preparation has been “a huge one,” says Myers, who spearheads student success efforts.
Test score criteria may be the biggest barrier to diversity and equity in engineering, say admissions reformers, noting that such measures of achievement rarely determine academic success in engineering. When Bruk Berhane, an assistant professor and undergraduate program director at Florida International University’s School of Universal Computing. Construction, and Engineering Education, was coordinating recruitment for the University of Maryland in 2011, there were three tiers of students whose eligibility for admission could quickly be sorted according to SAT scores and GPAs. “If you made the cut on the Excel spreadsheet, you were in,” he says. Then the Women in Engineering director asked about adopting Purdue’s more holistic approach to increase gender representation. “That took me down a rabbit hole,” says Berhane, who spent the next year studying the numbers and experiences of first-generation, female, and other underrepresented groups in engineering. What emerged was a more transparent, fairer system, where the top and bottom students were clear calls, with leeway to determine whether certain students merited acceptance because of leadership roles, extracurricular activities, or other pursuits that demonstrated a passion and talent for engineering. “For me, it was really about what do we do in those on-the-fence cases,” explains Berhane.
The gamble paid off: The average GPA increased along with the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities. “It was a conversation starter,” says Berhane, whose spreadsheet grew to 26 columns from the original three as he began reviewing students not only for admission but also for the engineering summer bridge programs. Along with the traditional column for math scores, he kept track of financial hardships that may have surfaced on an application essay but not on the federal financial aid form. Some were awarded increased scholarships. Knowing who the students are before they arrive on campus tipped the scales toward equity and inclusion, says Berhane, adding that “in a generation from now, we may not be talking about this.”
Engineering is a data-driven enterprise, however, and measures of academic performance such as test scores are not easily abandoned. What school wants to get accused of lowering standards—or take a hit in the rankings? Colorado’s Myers quantified just how big a barrier scores posed in a presentation at ASEE’s 2019 Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity (CoNECD) conference. According to her analysis, if every engineering college used Colorado’s minimum ACT cut score of 28, they’d all be competing for fewer than 1,500 African-American high school graduates each year. “We need to tell the story in a way that people don’t recoil in fear of losing on the U.S. News rankings,” contends FIU’s Berhane, noting that Maryland’s revised admissions playbook included adjusting the SAT math cut score down to around 650. Since introducing the alternative pathway in 2012. average GPAs have increased along with the number of women, minorities, and graduation rates—redefining “selectivity,” in other words.
Mary Lord is Prism’s deputy editor.
© University of Washington
Education experimenters confront problems shared across engineering and engineering technology disciplines.
By Thomas K. Grose
There are the stubborn mega problems in engineering education—among them, lack of diversity; low retention rates; inadequate student preparation in math and science; and heavy dependence on international graduate students—that can only be fixed at an institutional level. Then there are myriad weaknesses that department chairs and classroom instructors must try to resolve. Researchers are examining many of these issues and developing worthwhile insights. Here are three examples from recent presentations at ASEE conferences.
Grooming the T-Shaped Engineer
Senior capstone courses are considered crucial to engineering education because they give soon-to-graduate students a chance to work in teams on open-ended projects—like the ones they can expect on the job. That’s at least the theory. Yet a common complaint from employers is that new graduates are “not exposed to working with people who are not engineers,” says Benjamin Goldschneider, a doctoral student in engineering education at Virginia Tech. This experience gap means students fall short of the T-shaped engineer sought by industry: one who combines “both deep disciplinary knowledge and the ability to work with professionals from a variety of fields.”
There are numerous reasons for this. Administratively, a course that mixes students from several departments or schools is a challenge. For instance, an engineering student’s final report isn’t the same thing as an English student’s portfolio. And the course has to be structured to reveal each student’s disciplinary competence. Moreover, faculty rarely get rewarded for working outside their discipline and are often discouraged from doing so.
As recounted in an ASEE conference paper Goldschneider co-authored with Nicole Pitterson, an assistant professor of engineering education at Virginia Tech, their team ran a pilot course during the 2018-19 academic year involving 14 computer science (within engineering), seven business, and seven industrial design students divided into seven four-person teams. If the course worked well, they intended to come up with a “road map” that other schools could follow. They drew on research from a few other schools that have also tried multidisciplinary capstone courses. Virginia Tech’s approach was novel, however, in that it didn’t just include students from different disciplines but was taught by an interdisciplinary team of instructors. “They were also role models,” Goldschneider explains. “We wanted to show, by example, that multidisciplinary teams can work together.”
Each group of four worked on a solution to one of three topics requiring an interdisciplinary approach: Aging in Place—designing an assistive device or system to make it easier for the elderly to continue living at home; Autonomous Vehicles and Us—coming up with a system to help people coexist with autonomous vehicles; and Design for Empowerment—developing an aid to help people with mental or physical disabilities deal with a common task. All the teams, Goldschneider says, came up with satisfactory solutions, which the instructors found “more well-rounded and less unidimensional” than previous projects. The engineering and design students gained a better grasp of the financial feasibility of their devices while the business students benefitted from being able to work with physical prototypes.
“I believe it was a successful pilot run,” Goldschneider says. The course “helped students break out of their silos” and gain “better preparation for the work they will do in industry.” Still, the course design “needs more evolution.” For example, students were given just two weeks to investigate their problem, which wasn’t long enough to allow them to talk to enough stakeholders and fully understand the breadth of their scenarios.
Preparations are under way to rerun the class in the upcoming academic year. Eventually, the investigators want to survey both the students and their subsequent employers. The business school “didn’t fully buy in” to the project, but Goldschneider thinks positive feedback from employers “would show that it’s been beneficial and industry likes the [nontechnical] skills these students have.” That, in turn, would brighten prospects for future multidisciplinary capstones.
An Answer to Overcrowded Classes
Engineering enrollment in the United States grew 83.5 percent between 2009 and 2018, but faculty hiring hasn’t come close to keeping pace. Tenured, tenure-track, and full-time nontenured faculty grew just 20 percent during the same period, resulting in bigger class sizes. Since small classes are generally associated with better teaching, must the quality of instruction inevitably suffer? That prospect was on the minds of Geoffrey Recktenwald, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Michigan State University, and three colleagues attending a 2016 National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education workshop. While impressed by the pedagogical innovations presented, they wondered, “Would what works for 30 students work for 150?”
The four—Recktenwald, Allison Godwin of Purdue University; Anant Sahai of University of California–Berkeley; and Matthew West of the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign—set out to determine the most important indicators of teaching quality. They then developed a framework that faculty members can use in deciding how to adjust to different class sizes while preserving instructional quality.
As reported in their 2018 ASEE Annual Conference paper, the team determined that key indicators of effective teaching are active learning pedagogies and deep assessment, or the opportunity for students to get detailed feedback from instructors. Both become more difficult to provide as class size increases. Still, research has found that course organization and instructor practices are more important than class size when it comes to outcomes. “It is easier in a small class,” Recktenwald says, “but if you think it through deeply and what resources you need, it can be done” on a larger scale, too.
The framework helps faculty do just that and find the organizational model that best fits their classes. The researchers took a cue from the way business typically categorizes firms by size. “Most people understand the corporate differences, so we decided to use it as a common lingo, and it fits remarkably well. Businesses worry a lot about how to deal with growth,” Recktenwald says. He and his colleagues examined four models as “a first step in implementing a research-to-product pipeline in the field of engineering education.”
- A small class—10 to 20 students per faculty member—works like a family business. It can offer personal experiences that connect to students’ interests while allowing for targeted assessment and feedback. The downside is a significant burden on the individual faculty member seeking to change a course.
- Cloning high-demand courses, whereby different instructors have identical course objectives, works like a franchise operation. It’s common practice in schools facing large enrollments that want smaller class sizes. There is often no organizational model for ensuring that successful innovations in one class are shared with other instructors.
- Larger classes run by a group of faculty are “firms,” comparable to medium-size operations governed by partners. Common in large public universities, they are supported by a collection of graders or teaching assistants (TAs) acting in parallel. Major pedagogical changes require careful advanced planning, training, and “buy in” by the teaching team. The quality of TA feedback and grading can be a serious pitfall and should be monitored as changes are introduced.
- A mega-sized class of 500 or more students is analogous to a corporation, where a “course czar” is the de facto CEO who sets the syllabus, text, and exams. Other participating faculty lack autonomy and follow the curriculum in lockstep. This model can ensure consistency at a very large scale, and allows for people to be assigned to specialized roles. However, while efficient, evaluation may be difficult. Therefore, an advisory board may be necessary.
What Makes ET Students Unique?
Anne Lucietto, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s School of Engineering Technology, spent 30 years in industry working as a mechanical engineer and as an adjunct engineering professor. When she decided to earn her Ph.D. and join academia full time, she pivoted to engineering technology and quickly realized that teaching ET students wasn’t the same as teaching engineering students. “There are certainly some differences. There are enough that we need to be more cognitive of our students.”
But when Lucietto began digging into the literature to better understand her students, she found there “really wasn’t much out there.” As a result, ET instructors lack the empirical evidence needed to structure their courses and decide which pedagogies to apply, she says. Indeed, most faculty rely on studies geared to engineering instruction, not ET. That could be a bad choice if their students have different learning and thinking styles.
So Lucietto embarked on her own research. At ASEE’s 2016 Annual Conference, she presented her working hypothesis that, unlike engineering graduates, ET graduates don’t really have a group identity to cling to once they’re out in the workforce. She and her coauthors have sought to better understand the psychological makeup of ET students and how they learn so that instructors can find and apply the most appropriate teaching methods.
ET students represent a range of student types and backgrounds. They may enroll because of ET’s hands-on curriculum. They may have switched from engineering or not been accepted when they entered college, or they may have transferred from a community college. Like many undergraduates, they struggle with the timing of work and deadlines. Their self-evaluations are higher than peers’ assessments. To improve ET students’ technical-writing skills—something employers say is lacking—well-crafted exercises should be integrated throughout the curriculum. Lucietto recommends that ET lessons be structured, predictable, and logical while allowing iterative solutions, use of intuition, and independent problem solving. Faculty who observed pairs of students in a capstone course all witnessed, at some point, “friction, differences in ability, a student taking over, and free riding.” The more analytical ET students “like to apply logic to situations, need to work alone, and thrive on stimuli.”
While engineering students are generally comfortable working with outsiders and people with differing opinions, ET students “don’t like working with people who don’t think the same way they do,” Lucietto found. Since the working world will most certainly have them collaborating with people who think differently, she says, “we need to help them get past that.” One way to do this is through international exposure. Citing organizers of a group trip to Germany, she reported that it served to change students’ thinking about solar energy as well as “about things they formerly felt about different cultures and races.”
Lucietto wants to expand her research to other schools—particularly on the east and west coasts—and she’s keen to investigate whether the profiles of women and underrepresented minorities in ET differ from their white, male peers, who were predominant in the cohort she studied.
Thomas K. Grose, Prism’s chief correspondent, is based in the United Kingdom.
© Getty Images
Inside the Walls
Engineering education in prison can work—despite frequent disruptions, restrictions, and gaps in students’ educational backgrounds.
By Margaret Loftus
Every Friday night for a couple of semesters, Tim Bretl would pile into a car with a handful of academic colleagues from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign for the 45-minute drive to Danville Correctional Center, a state prison in east-central Illinois, where the car poolers taught weekly courses in their respective disciplines. “On the way over, we’d talk about plans and various strategies,” says the associate professor of aerospace engineering. “It’s not an easy environment to be in. Anything could happen. Being able to roll with that was among the things we’d talk about.”
Collegial support is just one of the ways those who teach college courses in prisons navigate its inherent challenges, from restrictions on teaching materials to the ever-looming possibility of a last-minute lockdown. Such limitations hit engineering courses particularly hard, thanks to the reliance on lab work and disparity in STEM backgrounds among the incarcerated population. But with support from the prison education community, careful planning, flexibility, and MacGyver-like resourcefulness, Bretl and others who have taught engineering to incarcerated students have managed to pull it off—and with respectable retention rates to boot.
Prison education is drawing increased attention as a result of nationwide efforts to reduce prison populations, which surged during the 1990s drug war, and equip those released to join the workforce. Yet compared with the humanities, college-level engineering courses are rare. The problem is not lack of demand, says Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project (EJP) at UIUC, the college-prison program through which Bretl taught at Danville. “There’s a misconception that prisoners aren’t smart enough to learn STEM. Anybody who’s ever spent any time in a prison knows that’s false,” she says. But there aren’t enough instructors. “There’s a high demand in general for STEM, but the majority of classes being taught in prisons are humanities because those are the academics interested in teaching.”
A New Push for STEM in Prisons
New pathways to engineering from behind bars might be possible as part of a project led by the Massachusetts-based Education Development Center, with participation by Princeton and Vanderbilt universities, a Baltimore nonprofit, From Prison Cells to Ph.D. (P2P), and the New Orleans-based Operation Restoration, which is affiliated with Tulane University. Backed by $5.2 million from the National Science Foundation, the STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS) Alliance aims “to build a national network aimed at providing and supporting viable pathways to STEM for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated,” according to its award abstract, which says it has the potential “to significantly transform the face of the STEM workforce and the narrative regarding the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated and their potential to succeed in STEM.” Otis Jennings, a Georgia Tech-trained industrial engineer who advises STEM-OPS, says that with society highly focused on technology, “the more we can facilitate access to these things, the better we will do at training and preparing [people who are incarcerated] for life on the outside.”
The alliance represents a second, expanded phase of an NSF-backed pilot, “STEPs to STEM,” run by Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative. PTI and partner Raritan Valley Community College provide foundational STEM courses that could enable students at up to a half-dozen New Jersey prisons to pursue four-year STEM degrees once they are released from prison. They are now working to adapt computer science for prison classes. “We found a pretty low-tech way to get high-tech results,” says Sheila Meiman, a computer engineer and director of Raritan Valley’s Returning and Incarcerated Student Education (RISE) program. A novel feature of STEPs to STEM provides university research experiences for formerly incarcerated students. Jannette Carey, a Princeton chemistry professor, says STEM-OPS, of which she is a co-PI, will make more such experiences available around the country. About 150 Princeton volunteers—graduate students, postdocs, and a handful of faculty—are engaged in PTI. They find the students “extraordinarily serious,” says Carey. “Most of us say it’s the most rewarding teaching experience we’ve ever had.”
For now, even when engineering courses are offered, they generally don’t lead to bachelor’s degrees. So why do people in prison, including some who will never step outside its walls, want to study engineering? It’s about self-improvement, Ginsburg says. “They have the sense that higher education is an intrinsic good and it stretches your mind and broadens your sense of the world and your place within it.” It also serves the public good. A 2014 RAND Corporation study found that incarcerated individuals who participate in any kind of educational program are up to 43 percent less likely to reoffend and return to prison and 13 percent more likely to secure employment after release. Such programs are also cost effective, RAND found, although it said more research is needed on success in prison education.
What worked for Bretl was adaptability. He began teaching at Danville in 2013 after hearing about the program at a Society of Friends meeting. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a difference,” he says. The two courses he taught—Introduction to Robotics and, later, Aerospace Control Systems—were every bit as rigorous as the material he teaches to his upper-level undergrads on campus, he says. “You’re always making adjustments in class, but the general level of expectation was the same.” That’s not the case, however, for the resources available to incarcerated students. As Bretl recounted in a 2018 article for the ASME publication, Focus on Dynamic Systems & Control: “They had no Internet, no online journals or databases to follow cross references, no search engines, no Wikipedia.”
Nor were most prepared academically. For instance, few would have taken the calculus and linear algebra expected of Bretl’s students at Illinois. Perhaps surprisingly, this was not a deal-breaker, although it did require extra impromptu lessons. For example, until he taught at Danville, Bretl had never had to explain to a student what a derivative was. “The way that I dealt with this was to be very, very flexible. If there is a basic concept like the notion of a derivative that’s important to understand to make progress in the class and we realize that half the students have never seen that before, then we’re going to take the class to talk about that,” he tells Prism. “On the other hand, it’s what made the teaching the most fun.”
Andy Borum, now a visiting assistant professor in the math department at Cornell University, realized just how much he depended on the Internet when he taught a computer programming workshop at Danville as a UIUC grad student in aerospace engineering. Error messages couldn’t be deciphered by cutting and pasting them into Google. Instead, Borum and his students had to read the error messages in detail to try to understand what they meant. The upside? His students got good at it. “That’s a skill you don’t learn on the outside,” he says. “When they’re released, these will be some of the most resourceful programmers on the market.”
Perhaps an even greater hurdle for instructors is not being able to freely bring in special equipment for demonstrations or lab work. When Aubrey Beal, an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, taught an electronics course at Easterling Correctional Facility as an Auburn grad student, he had to get permission from the warden each time he wanted to bring in equipment. “I did a lot of demos on electrostatics. I tried to do it with material available to students, but you can only go so far with [cones and jars].” One of his colleagues who was teaching a civil engineering class to students at Easterling resorted to using dried spaghetti in bridge-building demos. But with help from the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project, Beal eventually was able to bring in a Tesla coil to show students electricity moving through the air.
Lab work, too, is tricky. When it became obvious that Danville’s clearance process would put a damper on hands-on work in his robotics course, Bretl and volunteers devised a workaround. Grad students, including Borum, conducted experiments in a campus lab, generating data sets for the Danville students to analyze in the classroom. The analysis, Bretl writes, was the same as they would have done in a lab. “I think they got many of the same skills as students working in labs,” Borum says. “I don’t think I would have ever imagined when I first took robotics that it was feasible, but it worked out pretty well.” Indeed, 12 out of 13 Danville students passed Bretl’s robotics class, earning university credit, and four out of six students passed the aerospace controls class.
For many instructors, the most stressful part of teaching in a prison is the unpredictability. Just showing up for class, for instance, can be trying. When he taught at Easterling, Beal was in the habit of arriving 45 minutes early to make sure he had enough time to navigate the entry process, which includes waiting for an officer to escort you to class. “If you’re not early, you may not get to teach,” he says. “There are tons of people who have to visit the prison on business and depending on what the staff have to do that day, you may not be a priority. Those duties aren’t like clockwork necessarily. There are a lot of unknowns. You have to be flexible.” At one point, Bretl found that the end of his three-hour class, scheduled for 8 p.m., kept creeping forward. “You never knew when the students would be called away.” Eventually, EJP intervened and advocated for a more consistent time frame. The stress of it all can a take toll, says Beal. “I always kept a bottle of ibuprofen in my car and would need to take a few after teaching.”
Nonetheless, the instructors agree that teaching in prisons resulted in positive experiences that made them stronger educators. “When I’m teaching on campus, I’m always thinking about increasing student engagement, and that’s almost never a problem in prison,” says Borum. “The students I worked with in prisons have been some of the most motivated and engaged in the classroom out of all the students I’ve taught.” Beal’s takeaway: “I started to listen a lot more than I talked.” Bretl, too, says he’s more attentive. “I learned to really listen to what [my students] were saying, and go with the flow and be flexible,” he says. “It had a profound effect on me.” Bretl, Borum, and Beal all say they would teach in prisons again.
Margaret Loftus, a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C., is a frequent Prism contributor. Prism editor Mark Matthews contributed reporting.
© Education Justice Project
A Laser Focus on Job-Ready Graduates
With ‘The Engineer of 2020’ as a guide, Campbell University stresses core subjects and experience with state-of-the-art equipment.
By Mark Matthews
How does a fledgling engineering school establish itself in a state with one of the nation’s premier research parks and powerhouses like North Carolina State and Duke Universities? One way is to send student interns out into the world who can “blow the doors off” and keep employers asking for more. That has been Jenna Carpenter’s approach as founding dean of engineering at Campbell University. Now, as the first cohort of 35 students prepares to graduate in May, most have at least one internship under their belts at companies that include Caterpillar, Pfizer, Moen, Novo Nordisk, Grifols, Rockwell Collins, and 3M. By early January, with the school’s accreditation still pending, one-third of this year’s graduating class had received job offers, Carpenter says.
The addition of engineering fits a growth strategy at the rural, 5,900-student university founded in 1887 as the Buies Creek Academy by James Archibald Campbell, a young Baptist minister. No longer under church control but still Christian-oriented, Campbell is adding new structures to its 850-acre, red-brick campus near the Cape Fear River and boasts a law school 30 miles to the north in Raleigh as well as graduate programs ranging from divinity to osteopathic medicine and business. However, not everyone thought North Carolina needed a seventh stand-alone engineering school. A writer for the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a Raleigh nonprofit, observed, “[I]t would seem that Campbell faces an uphill climb” and might have bitten off more than it could chew. But for Carpenter, hired away from Louisiana Tech in 2015, it presented the “perfect way to capitalize” on all she had learned as an instructor, administrator, champion of women in engineering, and consumer of research.
“We know a lot about engineering education, a lot more than we did 50 years ago,” she says. Given wide latitude to do things her way, Carpenter took as her guiding texts the National Academies’ “The Engineer of 2020” and “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” and sought advice from Richard Miller, president of Olin College, and Susan Blanchard, who in 2005 launched the engineering school at Florida Gulf Coast University. She also drew upon what has proven to be effective: Many years earlier, Carpenter had helped create a freshman curriculum at Louisiana Tech that incorporated the entire engineering design process. That class-led, hands-on, project-based approach worked so well, she thought it should be applied through all four years. “I mean, why keep it a secret until senior year? It’s what makes engineering engineering,” she reasons. At Campbell, “I knew coming in that’s what I wanted to do.”
Statics for All
Students gain exposure in freshman year to all three of Campbell’s engineering concentrations: mechanical, chemical, and electrical. Sophomore year, students choose one of the three, eventually graduating with a B.S. in engineering (B.S.E.). Not a fan of niche specialties that may not endure, Carpenter believes major core disciplines—civil engineering is likely to be added—better prepare graduates to enter a rapidly changing engineering environment. “I always tell students nano engineering didn’t exist when I was an undergrad, but I understand the basics of it because I had all the core content,” she says. “So our kids, everybody takes statics, everybody takes circuits.”
Courses geared to regional industry, including manufacturing and bio-pharmaceuticals, are backed up by $5.5 million dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art equipment. While the school houses a maker space open to the whole campus, machinery of all kinds—from computer numerical control (CNC) routers for milling, drilling, and cutting, to a powerful waterjet cutting tool and a fermenter-bioreactor—fills the main engineering building and two warehouse-like pre-fab annexes. Students’ understanding of how the equipment works makes them sought after as interns, Campbell says. Classes combine lectures and labs so students can immediately start to apply what they’re taught.
Then there’s the magic that springs from students’ imaginations—projects they tackle because no one told them they couldn’t. In one such project, students devised a suitcase-size device that compiles, overnight, all the data from sensors worn by the women’s soccer team. In another, they solved a problem for a classmate who is deaf in one ear and sometimes sleeps through an alarm. They embedded a small vibrating sensor inside a pillow and, using an Arduino device, created an app that programs it to throb gently at wake-up time. The final touch: embroidery using one of the maker space tools. As Carpenter recounts, the pillow prompted one of the judges at a student expo to exclaim, “Oh my gosh. I have to get up at 4 a.m. every day and the alarm wakes up my wife. Can I have one of those?”
Over spring break in 2018, a half-dozen freshmen put their design-process training to work at a wildlife conservation camp in Botswana. They figured out why the batteries that served as a power source for water pumps were running out of juice: The fluid inside was evaporating. They replaced the fluid, but only after first testing to make sure it was de-ionized—a skill they had acquired building a miniature saltwater fish tank in class. Using only a drill, drill bit, rope, and a chainsaw, they also devised a roller to flatten a damaged airstrip runway.
One experience Carpenter wanted her students to avoid was the kind of reception she received as an incoming engineering student at Louisiana Tech. “Being a woman in engineering was in many ways a strike against you,” she writes in Rising to the Top, a collection of short memoirs published by the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies. “No one was welcoming or helpful. No one seemed to care if you succeeded or not.” That shouldn’t happen at Campbell, where Carpenter has recruited a majority-female faculty. The engineering school does not apply its own selection criteria, which at some schools keeps admitted students out of engineering. “I did that on purpose,” she says. ”partially because I know when you [apply additional criteria], you filter out all kinds of students who might be interested.” For those who lack sufficient preparation, “we have an alternate—notice I didn’t say remedial—pathway” that includes a course in engineering applications of math that students can take when they enter or in the summer.
‘Concepts in Context’
Despite Carpenter’s efforts, engineering enrollment at Campbell is overwhelmingly male and white, with women accounting for 17 percent of enrollees. Chemical engineering is 56 percent female, but represents just 16 percent of students.
While she received a frosty introduction to engineering, “the faculty in the math department were nice to me,” Carpenter writes, and so she switched undergraduate majors and went on to become a math professor. At Campbell, she teaches freshman calculus, emphasizing “what we call teaching concepts in context. So for example, they have to calculate the flow rate of their pump.” Throughout her career however, most of Carpenter’s students have been engineering majors, and she spent 18 years as an engineering administrator at Louisiana Tech.
Carpenter’s faculty hires are an eclectic mix of disciplinary expertise and experience in industry and curriculum development. Anastasia and Lee Rynearson, both assistant professors of mechanical engineering, earned doctorates from Purdue’s School of Engineering Education. Timothy Shenk, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, has a Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology as well as a divinity degree. A key member of the team is Teresa Ratcliff, a retired vice provost at NC State who serves as industry liaison. “Her job is to help get the word out, reach out to industry. We’ve hosted a ton of economic development directors,” Carpenter says.
Once the initial cohort graduates in May, the school’s next challenge will be accreditation. Carpenter isn’t worried, though. She is an ABET program evaluator and says, “This will be my fifteenth time to lead a program through ABET,” and Associate Dean Michele Miller serves on ABET’s Engineering Accreditation Commission. But first, there will be a ceremony. Campbell has invited as graduation speaker the former Georgia Tech President and Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough, who in 2001 chaired the National Academy of Engineering steering committee that led to the landmark “The Engineer of 2020.” Carpenter is confident her graduates have the attributes the report demanded.
Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.
© Campbell University
A ‘Grand Challenge’ Curriculum
Chapman adopts a team-based capstone model for all four years.
By Mark Matthews
Chapman University sees higher education as part of the “experience economy.” Located some seven miles from the original Disneyland, this Orange County, Calif., school has gone so far as to partner with the Disney Institute, consulting arm of the entertainment company, to enhance “the Chapman Experience.” For engineering students, this means an “agile, dynamic, and immersive educational experience,” such as what happened in a computer science manufacturing course last October: Each student assembled a 3-D printer and set to work designing and printing costumes for a nonprofit organization serving at-risk youth. After asking the kids what they wanted to be for Halloween, students came up with, among other concepts, a Supergirl costume equipped with chest plate and detailed armbands, the Infinity Gauntlet from The Avengers, and a near-perfect mask for Guardians of the Galaxy hero Star-Lord, down to red eyes encircled by tiny LEDs.
Substituting 3-D printers for a textbook is the kind of exercise encouraged by Andrew Lyon, a start-up veteran and founding dean of Chapman’s new engineering school. In another example, students Oliver Mathias and Greg Tyler, using magnetic resonance imaging, worked on making a 3-D prototype of a human brain to help surgeons prepare for neurosurgery.
Opening this fall, the school will absorb computer science, computer engineering, and data analytics bachelor’s programs currently in the College of Science and Technology. It will add electrical and software engineering—both slated to seek ABET accreditation once the first cohort graduates. A math-civil engineering dual degree program with the University of California–Irvine will continue. Starting in July 2021, the new school will occupy a 50,000-square-foot section of a two-year-old science and engineering center.
Expectations are high. Named for Chapman alumnus Dale Fowler and his wife, Sarah Ann, who pledged $45 million of their property development fortune, the school is the central feature of a five-year strategic plan, “Engineering the Future,” intended to advance the university toward national prominence. Enrollment in the school is expected to grow by 20 percent annually over the next several years.
Lyon, appointed in December 2018, looked to Olin College as a model of project-based learning and how to use small size to optimum advantage, as well as to Harvey Mudd College and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He also drew advice from Gregory Washington, engineering dean at UC–Irvine and newly named president of George Mason University, and from Wendy Newstetter, director of educational research and innovation at Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering and co-recipient of the National Academy of Engineering’s 2019 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.
Woven throughout a student’s career, Lyon says, will be the kind of instruction typical of a senior capstone, meant to pull together all a student has learned so far. An over-arching theme is “the ‘why?’ of engineering—what problems are you really trying to solve?” In addition, “hard-baked into all degree programs” for first-year students at both the College of Science and Technology and the Fowler School will be the Grand Challenge Initiative, in which interdisciplinary teams might develop wearable technology to predict critical health problems or drones that deliver medical supplies, or figure out ways to prevent drunk or distracted driving. Although Chapman hasn’t joined the NAE-backed Grand Challenges Scholars Program, its initiative sounds similar.
Teamwork is shown to aid retention, Lyon says. “One of the things we know moves the needle from first to second year is common experiences,” which help build a community with the “right fit.” Ties with industry, including student internships and guest speakers, will work to both update curricula and help students build networks with companies. “We can develop courses very quickly,” says Lyon, including single-credit, pass-no pass pop-up courses. Meeting regularly with an industrial advisory group, he devotes part of each session to pondering “What do we need to worry about?” and “What five things will be disruptive?” A separate dean’s advisory group helps him connect “with the C-Suite level.”
In planning the school, Lyon says he tried to ”make sure a shared vision was part of everything we did,” With space, for instance, “we held listening sessions to go over plans.” He’s conducted exercises with faculty during which they responded on sticky notes to a series of questions about what they value as a school. Leadership decisions take into account their impact on building a culture in the new school. Lyon also regularly holds meetings to hear students’ concerns.
To the dozen faculty members Lyon has brought over from the College of Science and Technology, he has added three new engineering hires and is looking for six more. So far, applicants are 70 percent female, he says. He’s also actively recruiting engineering postdoctoral fellows to help guide the Grand Challenge Initiative. Among the 300-plus engineering students so far, women account for about 30 percent—well above the national average for engineering schools. Lyon expects the school to grow to about 700 students and 45 faculty members.
It remains to be seen whether they can fulfill the Fowler School’s vision of “engineering the impossible.” But an experience? Guaranteed!
Mark Matthews is editor of Prism.
© Chapman University
A department’s adoption of interdisciplinary courses seemed sudden, but it took a dedicated group of reformers more than a decade to make it happen.
By Jennifer Pocock
When revolution begins, it’s sometimes not with a bang, but a whisper. At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, it started in 2006 with strategically invited students from multiple departments, so-called “independent studies,” and small-scale capstone projects. Thomas Martin, professor of electrical and computer engineering, began the course with Matthew Wisnioski, an associate professor of science and technology in society, and brought in Lisa McNair, an associate professor of engineering education, to help direct the pedagogy.
“We’ve always had an agnostic attitude toward disciplines and are trying to work together, especially across disciplines, to bring different people together in different configurations,” says McNair. The three wanted their students to have the freedom to innovate and the ability to speak other professional languages. To do so, they hand-picked a class of 12 students from ECE, industrial engineering, and marketing to create small, innovative products that would help others. “They would get what we called an ‘opportunity area’ at the beginning of the semester. One year it was children with diabetes,” says Martin. The students would then collaborate to come up with a product—with the children, it was a glucose-monitoring smart watch—create a marketing plan, and pitch it to venture capitalists at the end of the year.
The interdisciplinary product course wasn’t exactly a secret, but it also wasn’t something discussed in polite circles. “One semester, we had a faculty member whose department head told him, ‘Do not do that. You are not allowed to participate in that course.’ He showed up anyway,” recalls Martin. “Whenever we talked about that course, we had to be careful not to mention his name because he didn’t want his department head to find out.”
“My department head didn’t tell me not to do it, but he also wouldn’t give me teaching credit for it,” says Martin. “I was just doing it as a course overload.” Martin eventually got a more permissive department head who gave him credit whenever he taught enough students to fill one normal senior capstone course. “So if we had seven students each year, after three years of teaching I would get credit for teaching one course.”
Teaching their “guerrilla” course turned out to be fun and rewarding—the students often were offered jobs specifically because of their course experience—but after a while, it began to take a toll. “In a way, it was an extra labor of love,” says McNair. “It translated to a lot of extra work for everyone involved.” Additionally, McNair was the only faculty member to not have tenure, so she was operating without a safety net. Finally, in 2013, it became too much and the trio disbanded their under-the-table independent study. But they never lost hope.
Before they received a $2 million Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) grant from the National Science Foundation, Martin says, Virginia Tech’s electrical and computer engineering department was extremely rigid. Once a student declared either an electrical or computer engineering major as a freshman, that was it. “You were locked into 13 to 14 courses in the department without any choices whatsoever, with a handful of electives.”
Slowly, quiet dissent among faculty like Martin, McNair, and Wisnioski began to take hold and it became clear that the students wanted change. Martin says that Virginia Tech began to realize that its competitors were getting the best students because they provided more options. The school was open to becoming more interdisciplinary, so when NSF introduced the RED program in 2015, Martin and McNair pounced on the opportunity to bring their unconventional guerrilla-style teaching practices into the mainstream.
Their first attempt wasn’t successful. “We submitted a grant proposal the first year that RED was available where we suggested an innovation engineering track,” says Martin. “They said it wasn’t enough, it needed to affect the whole department.”
The primary thing the group wanted to do was give students the freedom to choose, branch out, and tailor their degrees to their career aspirations. Martin and McNair credit their success to Luke Lester, who became head of the ECE department in 2013 and gave his full support. He was the principal investigator on the NSF RED grant and open to suggestions. “Luke’s been willing to take risks,” says McNair. “From the beginning of this whole thing, we’ve all been risk-takers. He’s been willing to take the flack from below and above.”
Since the restructuring, students now take common active-learning courses in both electrical and computer engineering before being asked to choose a track of study, but their choice does not lock them in. They also have open electives and can easily take on second majors to deepen their education in other schools and departments. “There’s also a lot more understanding and coordination between the professors who know what their students are studying,” says Martin. Faculty are also involved in the design of the program. “It’s their own work, so it will be sustainable beyond the end of the grant.”
During a faculty meeting, Martin says that one of the electrical engineering professors who teaches power grid and large power-plant design said that he wanted his students to take cybersecurity classes. Martin had a lightbulb moment, as it were. “I was like, duh! Patching the power grid! In the past, those students would have had to double major because the grid students wouldn’t have the prerequisites for the cybersecurity classes and they’d have to start over. Now they can do power systems as their main thing and cybersecurity as a secondary focus, or vice-versa.”
Martin and McNair laugh now that, if they had attempted to start their interdisciplinary product course just 10 years later, they would have had “all sorts of resources thrown at” them because of its current popularity. But they also recognize that without their grassroots rebellion, this revolution might not have happened.
Jennifer Pocock is associate editor of Prism.
© Getty Images
Environmental engineering offers a striking example of a discipline changing with the times.
By Jennifer Pocock
“Sanitary engineering.” That was the original name for environmental engineering back in the days when it lived exclusively as a major area of study in civil engineering departments. Before the 1970’s, sanitary engineers held the noble and necessary responsibility of ensuring a clean supply of drinking water and filtering human waste away from homes and businesses. It was the professional engineering equivalent of garbage collectors: instrumental to society but decidedly unglamorous. When the clean air and water acts became hot topics in the public discourse and subsequently became law in 1970 and 1972, respectively, that all started to change. Clean water now meant something entirely different.
Today, environmental engineering is at the forefront of nationwide responses to the world’s biggest problems—including climate change, access to renewable energy, and yes, clean water. It has become the humanitarian field that will save the planet. The National Academy of Engineering released a report last year saying that the “ultimate challenge” for environmental engineering educators in addressing climate change is “preparing the field to address uncertain futures.”
How does a field keep up? How does it prepare engineers for an uncertain future with increasingly gnarly problems? They suggest that the best way to accomplish this is to develop T-shaped engineers: those who know a breadth of interdisciplinary skills and a depth of engineering skills.
According to Col. Philip J. Dacunto, engineering officer, and Michael Butkus, director of environmental engineering at the United States Military Academy West Point, the best way to prepare future engineers is to teach them as if they were going into hostile territory.
“Why is the Army called upon for hurricane relief and disaster response and ebola? It’s not because we’re specialized, it’s because of the broad set of skills that we bring,” says Dacunto. “When you’re on the ground in Afghanistan and you have to talk to the local chieftain about how to solve a water problem, you have to have an understanding of environmental engineering and civil engineering, and history and culture. You have to have that breadth of social sciences as well as the depth.”
He points out that, at West Point, environmental engineering is nested in the geography department. This seems odd but makes sense for their purposes. While the two do have similar qualities, “the disparate nature of the two disciplines can be a strength. For example, one of our courses is environmental engineering for community development, which is the application of environmental engineering in developing countries. To have a good understanding of how to do that, you have to have a good understanding of the culture and the cultural geography of the country. If you try a Western-style solution in Africa, that might not work too well.”
“What we try to do is give students a broad curriculum that enables them to think critically upon graduation. Our environmental engineering students have to take philosophy and English classes, and our philosophy students have to take engineering classes. We’re trying to train them for a much broader purpose than you’ll find at most schools.”
The U.S. Army’s mission command, Dacunto says, is to prepare students to respond to unanticipated problems that will arise in volatile areas. They’ve had to do it throughout history. It’s only now that the rest of engineering is needing to catch up to the uncertain futures that we face. The most important thing that engineering educators can do is give students the critical thinking skills, ethics, and empathy to not wage war against the planet while enabling them to spring into action and adapt at a moment’s notice.
Jennifer Pocock is associate editor of Prism.
© Col. Philip Dacunto/West Point Military Academy
Pace of Change
By Mary Lord
ASEE Fellows Rebecca Brent and Richard Felder, coauthors of Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide, are authorities on implementing research-based strategies in the engineering classroom. Together, they’ve presented over 450 workshops on effective teaching, course design, and faculty development on campuses worldwide and codirected the Society’s National Effective Teaching Institute from 1991 to 2015. Here’s their research-to-practice playlist of widescale hits, indicating progress, and misses, where they see gaps and shortfalls.
- Found in at least some classrooms on almost every engineering school
- Offers students authentic engineering design experiences
- Builds real-world engineering problem solving and teamwork skills
- Reinvigorates first-year engineering courses
Programs for Underrepresented Minorities and Women
- Summer bridge and mentoring programs, living-learning communities, and other approaches are improving diversity, retention, and student success.
- “One of the gamechangers” in opening degree programs to more students, for a quarter to half the cost of the bricks-and-mortar experience.
Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate (CDIO) Initiative
- Framework for engineering education that stresses problem-based learning and has attracted dozens of institutions to a worldwide consortium.
- Algorithmic problems cut down on students copying each other’s homework.
- Software lets instructors give realistic assignments, quizzes, and exams that can be graded by machine.
Tech-Based Teaching Resources
- Digital libraries of screencasts, simulations, and multimedia tutorials are increasingly available in all engineering disciplines.
- “Really exciting” development that is catching on at many schools, including 47 in the KEEN Engineering Unleashed network.
- Students benefit from professionals who focus on teaching, but on most campuses, teaching faculty lack status and job security—despite shouldering an increasing percent of the course load.
Preparation of Future Faculty
- Most doctoral programs “do little or nothing” to prepare graduates to teach or to start and build a successful independent research program.
Mentoring New Faculty
- One semester of mentoring from an excellent teacher or researcher “can knock up to three years off the usual new faculty learning curve.”
- Everyone decries the “popularity contest” of student course evaluations, and peer evaluations have even fewer fans. Doing both in the same department yields reliable ratings of good teaching and bad teaching. When the two disagree, “it’s a signal not to accept either set at face value—find out what’s going on!”
- The traditional lab is 14 cookbook-style experiments in as many weeks, which does little to prepare future engineers for things going wrong—the main occurrence they will face as professionals. Three or four experiments in 14 weeks, with clear objectives and minimal instructions, provide more hands-on experiences geared toward figuring out why a process or product failed to meet design specifications.
Mary Lord is Prism’s deputy editor.
© Getty Images