Summer 2013

A decade-by-decade tour of technological marvels and education milestones.
by Mary Lord & Robin Tatu

ASEE’s founding in 1893 coincided with an era of unprecedented technological progress driven by engineering innovation, entrepreneurship, and invention. Preceding decades saw engineering shift from apprenticeships to classroom instruction, with the earliest curricula established at West Point (1802) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1825). The Civil War and the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act fueled a dramatic growth in programs, particularly at state universities; by 1880, there were 85 U.S. engineering schools—up from just 17 a decade earlier. Soon, colleges were producing the bulk of America’s engineers.

Few of the founders gathered at the Chicago World’s Fair likely imagined how profoundly technology would transform society or engineering education. The 20th century brought motorcars – along with traffic signals, roads, oil refining, gas stations, and route-numbering systems. Radio, television, and motion pictures made their debut, spawning an unrivaled entertainment industry. Air-conditioning, refrigeration, power plants, and distribution grids enabled 24/7 commerce. Skyscrapers rose, huge dams irrigated the desert, and elegant spans connected once distant communities. So did the telephone and, later, the Internet.

Meanwhile, aerospace opened the friendly skies and landed humans on the moon. CT scans and artificial heart valves extended life spans. War—and federal research efforts—spurred many of the century’s biggest technical feats, while peace generated more playful pursuits. Throughout the decades, as the following time line attests, ASEE kept pace, fostering deep, sometimes tough conversations to ensure America’s continued pre-eminence in engineering innovation.


  • Revolutionary changes arrive in appliances, communications, and mobility. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright manage to control a flying machine, air conditioners cool offices, vacuum cleaners mechanize housework, and America’s love affair with the car takes off with the first Model T.
  • The first professional agricultural engineering curriculum established at Iowa State; University of Cincinnati launches first co-op program (1906), followed by Northeastern (1909).
  • The Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE), now ASEE, issues its first committee report on admissions policies; membership reaches 503 in 1907.


  • The fledgling era of flight brings air mail, advances in avionics, and aerial warfare. Automobile mass production spurs development of asphalt, paved roads, and oil-extraction techniques. Concrete, stainless steel, flash-frozen food, pop-up toasters, water chlorination, and the first transcontinental phone call debut.
  • Engineering disciplines and specialization expand. Most engineers are now university trained, up from 5 percent in 1871.
  • SPEE produces the first major study of U.S. engineering education, the Mann report, which calls for a common curriculum and attention to ethics in engineering. Membership hits 1,500.


  • Insulin and penicillin save lives, even as the first tommy guns claim them. Innovations range from the iron lung and Band-Aids to power steering, leaded gas, rockets, and spiral notebooks.
  • States begin licensing engineering schools. Engineering education moves from technical training toward science, humanities, and societal relationships.
  • SPEE’s Wickenden report advocates humanities study, while its first faculty summer schools discuss pipeline, standards, and accreditation issues. The Journal of Engineering Education launches.


  • Iconic public works projects like Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge bracket an era that gave rise to Scotch tape, Polaroid cameras, nylon, fiberglass, canned beer, FM radio, and helicopters.
  • European engineering educators bring mathematical analyses to the study of fluid dynamics, materials, and structural mechanics. Purdue starts the first common first-year engineering curriculum in 1934; Amelia Earhart is a visiting faculty member in 1935.
  • SPEE admits its first institutional members and cofounds the first accrediting body, the Engineers Council for Professional Development (ECPD), in 1932; Stevens Institute and Columbia University are first to sign up. By 1937, 374 of 626 curricula are approved.


  • The war effort spurs breakthroughs from rockets to radar, fighter jets, electric-digital computing, and atomic bombs.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute begins admitting women. Postwar federal funding shifts engineering programs toward research, and the G.I. bill ramps up enrollment in higher education.
  • SPEE’s 1940 Hammond report emphasizes science fundamentals over vocational training. SPEE helps create the Engineering College Research Association (1942), moves headquarters to Northwestern University (1943), and changes its name to ASEE (1946).


  • The nuclear arms race commences, as does atomic power production. Color TV, transistor radios, long-distance telephone service, interstate highways, and Barbie dolls take off. So, too, does the Pill.
  • The Society of Women Engineers and the National Science Foundation are established (1950); the University of Pennsylvania awards the nation’s first doctorate in bioengineering (1953). Defense efforts draw researchers further from industry practice.
  • As the established voice for engineering education, ASEE sends teams to the Soviet Union and India, revises its teaching manual, and administers government programs and education surveys. In 1954, headquarters moves to the University of Illinois and becomes self-supporting. Membership hits 8,000.


  • Tuned in (to TV) and turned on (to social problems), Americans believe engineers will propel man to the moon – and beyond. Developments include Valium, Kevlar, carbon fiber, the Boeing 747, Star Trek, the computer mouse, and the first handheld calculator.
  • The National Academy of Engineering
    is incorporated (1964). The next year, NAE elects its first woman: industrial engineer Lillian Gilbreth. Mississippi State creates the first undergraduate engineering program (1967). Purdue launches the nation’s first women-in-engineering program (1969).
  • ASEE moves to Washington, D.C., in 1964 to be “the voice of engineering education,” working with government organizations and encouraging funding for minority populations. The push for a uniform curriculum and master’s degree stirs controversy, prompting engineering technology groups to challenge ASEE’s leadership in engineering education. Membership tops 12,000 in 1966.


  • The era of garage start-ups spawns ever faster computers, PONG and videogames, word processing, email, spreadsheets, Star Wars, Post-it notes, a nascent Internet, and cellphones. CT and MRI scans fight America’s war on cancer while soaring gas prices drive demand for fuel-efficient cars. Earth Day and the first test-tube baby arrive.
  • The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (1974) starts up in Los Angeles; the National Society of Black Engineers is founded at Purdue (1975); the American Indian Science and Engineering Society begins (1977).
  • ASEE focuses increasingly on best teaching practice, not research, and on the expanded involvement of its members, divisions, and councils. Engineering technology and studies of under-represented minorities gain attention. Annals of Engineering Education launches in 1975.

1980s: PCs & MTV

  • The CD-ROM, IBM PC, Macintosh, Internet, domain names, and other disruptive technologies automate offices, schools, and homes, connecting people in new ways. MTV and antilock brakes debut along with controlled drug-delivery technology, the scanning tunneling microscope, Prozac, and the “morning-after pill”: RU-486.
  • In 1980, ECPD is renamed the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Eleanor Baum becomes the first woman engineering dean in 1984 at Pratt Institute.
  • The ASEE Engineering Deans Council establishes a federal liaison office. Engineering technology education and engineering education research come to the fore. Membership peaks at 13,000 in 1980, declining to 9,500 by decade’s end.


  • The World Wide Web takes off with Netscape, Google, URLs, and html. The Human Genome Project launches the quest to map man’s every chromosome, the Hubble Space Telescope, international space station and B-2 bomber deploy. Viagra hits the market.
  • In 1997, ABET adopts Engineering Criteria 2000, emphasizing innovation and engineering design; capstone projects and hands-on labs become standard.
  • Prism launches in 1991. ASEE moves into its current headquarters in 1993, hooks up to the Internet, and elects its first female president, Eleanor Baum.


  • Google, spam, and friend become verbs. GPS, ATMs, camera phones, and RFID become ubiquitous. Space is commercialized, nanotechnology infuses products, and Apple becomes the world’s biggest purveyor and player of digital music.
  • Utah State launches the nation’s first stand-alone engineering and technology education program in 2003. Purdue establishes the School of Engineering Education in 2004 and Virginia Tech sets up a department of engineering education. Stanford and MIT pioneer free massive open online courses (MOOCs).
  • ASEE doubles in size, expands fellowships, and helps establish the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES) and Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC). In 2003 Engineering, Go For It (eGFI), ASEE’s magazine and website for K-12 students, debuts. In 2012, engineering deans attend the White House launch of an initiative to produce 10,000 more U.S. engineering graduates annually; ASEE begins a project to collect retention data and helps develop new K-12 science standards that include engineering design.

By Mary Lord and Robin Tatu

As engineering education advanced through the decades, key debates kept recurring.
by Thomas K. Grose

In the summer of 1893, a group of engineering academics took time out from reviewing the showcase of technological prowess at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago to form the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, ASEE’s forerunner. As they pondered the growth of degree programs across the country, a civil engineering professor from New York’s Columbia College opened a debate that would persist, with varying degrees of vehemence, for the next 120 years. A foundation in math and science was necessary, argued William H. Burr, but engineering graduates should also have “a broad, liberal education in philosophy and the arts” and be well acquainted with applied skills.

How much liberal arts study engineers need is one of a series of questions that educators have argued over for decades. Others include: What is the right balance between practical, hands-on design and science, math, and analytics? Should faculty focus on research or teaching? Which teaching methods and technologies work best in the classroom? “When you look back over the years, there’s been an amazing consistency of issues,” says Bruce Seely, dean of the College of Sciences and Arts at Michigan Technological University, who has authored several papers on the history of engineering education.

Some unresolved issues are of more recent vintage. How can engineering schools attract and graduate more women and underrepresented minorities? What structures must change to accommodate such emerging multidisciplinary fields as biomedical, food safety, environmental, materials, or nano- and neuro-engineering? Most of all, how do colleges of engineering get faculty to implement pedagogical innovations that research has shown can improve student learning?

Educators most likely will continue to wrestle with these questions for some time to come. As Seely wrote of the curriculum tussle between practice and engineering science, “Perhaps the most constant feature of American engineering education has been the demand for change.” Another recurring challenge: acting on those demands. “It’s hard to get the momentum to overcome long-standing traditions,” notes Cynthia Finelli, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching in Engineering at the University of Michigan. “Change, in general, is hard to negotiate in the academy.”

Pendulum Swings

To see why, just consider the fluctuation between hands-on learning and theory. Practical curricula dominated the first half of the 20th century. Despite calls for more classes in physics and applied math, schools mainly stressed the “how” over the “why.” Only with the advent of World War II did research get pushed to the fore in engineering schools, compelled by military needs and a deluge of federal research money. The trend accelerated in the 1950s with the Cold War and dawn of the space race. Schools began hiring faculty who could snag big research grants and reshaped their programs to focus more on science, math, and engineering science. By the 1960s, engineering theory was paramount. In the early 70s, even the reformers anguished about the overemphasis on science for its own sake at the expense of practical applications. Yet it wasn’t until the 90s that efforts began in earnest to bring more design back into the curriculum. That trend continues today, particularly through co-op programs that provide hands-on training and industry experience. Yet, as Seely observes, “the pendulum is never going to be static.”

That’s partly because efforts to emphasize professional skills and design are typically at odds with the structure of American engineering schools. Roughly two thirds of U.S. engineering students are educated at doctorate-granting schools where research rules. As a result, says Brent Jesiek, an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University, “critics still say faculty are training students to be engineering researchers, not practitioners.” But research drives rankings and reputations. Even at Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, which explores innovative ways to teach, faculty members are primarily evaluated on their research, Jesiek says. “It’s ironic, but we are still subject to those standards.” Despite a growing number of teaching and learning centers on campuses, “many professors are not aware of best practices and pedagogy,” comments Michael Loui, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the editor of ASEE’s Journal of Engineering Education. “The dirty little secret of the academy is the ignorance of the professors.”

For many, that’s where ASEE comes in. The society “can play a leadership role in disseminating best practices and giving people who are innovators a forum to discuss their approaches to teaching and learning,” says Gary May, dean of engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

One partly settled debate is the need to ensure that undergraduates receive a healthy dose of liberal arts education. Lacking a humanities background, the engineer is ranked “as a relatively uncultivated man,” then ASEE President Ira O. Baker lamented in 1900. The notion that students should take eight humanities courses over four years began at the turn of that century and is still largely the norm today. What changes are notions of which courses are most crucial. In the 1930s, for example, political science and economics were considered key. ASEE’s 1968 Olmstead report stressed the need to combine technical competence with “a sense of human values and knowledge of social processes.” Today, schools strive to ensure that graduates develop strong communications skills, ability to work on multidisciplinary teams, and awareness of engineering’s societal impact. Yet requiring more general undergraduate courses can push tech courses into a yearlong master’s program.

That kind of five-year plan lies at the heart of another perennial concern: What should be the first professional degree? The American Society of Civil Engineers currently leads an effort to require a master’s, a movement strongly opposed by other engineering societies as well as ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council. Proponents note that engineering is nearly unique among the professions in accepting an undergraduate education as a professional qualification. Loui says he would prefer the master’s route because the current process crowds too many technical courses into a four-year schedule. But that’s a hard sell to industry, he admits, and to cash-strapped students.

Nonetheless, more flexible undergraduate programs could help graduate more women and underrepresented minorities – a major goal of engineering educators for several decades. Although SPEE’s first president, DeVolson Wood, lauded the Society’s decision not to bar females from joining its ranks, the numbers of women and minorities receiving degrees have remained consistently low. The 2012 ASEE-sponsored report, Innovation with Impact, found that engineering schools are still not perceived as welcoming, especially for women and minorities. Loui notes that the military roots of engineering still pervade the culture of many schools, and that’s often a turnoff for women. “We actually know how to solve this problem,” he says – with curricula that aren’t so packed with tech classes and that allow time for dual majors and international study. Yet like others, Loui admits that it’s difficult to change the system.

There’s widespread agreement that ridding schools of the old sink-or-swim mentality would help improve retention of underrepresented populations. Michigan’s Finelli says that while much progress has been made in that area, “I know that attitude is still there. When instructors are in very honest mode, they will admit it.” Some, she says, remain unconvinced of the value of diversity, despite findings that it translates into innovative, productive work environments.

New Dilemmas

Several emerging issues are likely to become perennials. While much real-world industrial work is interdisciplinary, for example, most engineering schools remain segregated by departments – mechanical, electrical, chemical–and offer few multidisciplinary degrees. Even rarer are courses that combine engineering with nonengineering disciplines, though there are a few mold-breakers. Olin College’s program is highly interdisciplinary, and includes a focus on the arts and entrepreneurship. Penn State’s Behrend College offers a major in interdisciplinary business and engineering studies, while Drexel University has a long-standing master’s program in engineering management. Industrial pressure could force more movement in this area. As nanotechnology gains increasing importance in engineering, it too could motivate change. Indeed, the National Academy of Engineering has stated it does not want to see departments of nanotechnology, but rather creation of interdisciplinary nanotech programs.

Another question destined to last for years is whether the United States needs more engineers—or fewer, better-trained ones. Despite the Obama administration’s stated goal to graduate 10,000 additional engineers a year, some experts, including Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, have concluded this may be misguided. Augustine argues that bachelor’s degree holders with basic skills eventually will lose out in a market glutted with equally proficient, less expensive engineers from developing nations. That confrontation could happen more quickly with the acceleration of an industry push to make the ABET model of accreditation a global one.

As recurring engineering education debates have churned through the decades, ASEE has often led the discussions and championed change. It also has been caught in the vortex. In the 1950s and early 60s, defense and other federal research contracts changed the culture at many leading schools. Educators seemed to value the pursuit of knowledge over teaching practical engineering. Seely argues that this shift toward research turned the Society into an organization for deans and department heads, causing it to lose purchase with rank-and-file faculty in the late 1960s, just as anti-establishment protests roiled campuses and space-program funding dried up. The pendulum swung back toward teaching, making membership a hard sell for young, research-driven faculty. Seely says recent efforts to incorporate design and balance research and engineering practice have allowed ASEE to “regain some traction, but it’s no longer the center of the universe it was 50 years ago.” But Ronald Barr, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas, Austin and former ASEE president, counters that the Society remains an important agent for helping educators recognize and respond to the issues. “ASEE has been one of the bright spots,” says Barr. “Things are slowly changing for the better, and ASEE has had a lot to do with that.” And if past is indeed prologue, the Society’s future will be marked by more swings of the pendulum.

Tom Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.

From multidisciplinary new specialties to MOOCs, engineering education must meet expanding challenges and serve new constituencies.
by Robin Tatu

If ASEE’s founders sought to keep engineering education abreast of dynamic technological change, their 2013 successors face the same challenge – on steroids. Advances in how we communicate, design, manufacture, build, and fight disease are matched by a surge of online instruction, global exchange, and scholarship on the complexity of learning. In the coming decades, the Society will need to help students, faculty, and institutions both compete in a global marketplace and acquire the tools to confront global problems, from climate change to shortages of food and potable water. Can ASEE cope?

It’s a tall order, but past and current leaders draw confidence from several traditional strengths and promising trends. For one, no other professional society spans all fields of engineering, “which is huge,” notes Richard Benson, Virginia Tech’s dean of engineering. That makes ASEE uniquely positioned to break down departmental silos and address the pedagogical challenges of biomechanics, nanotechnology, and other multidisciplinary engineering specialties. Eleanor Baum, an ASEE past president and dean of engineering emerita at Cooper Union, likewise sees ASEE’s disciplinary span as one of its great strengths, helping educators to “talk not only to engineers and people in [their] own discipline but to other people as well.” Discussion about new pedagogy, laboratory equipment, and technology in the classroom “really helps and is so important,” says Baum. “I think ASEE facilitates this enormously.”

The Society could do even more to foster faculty exchange and learning, argues Sarah Rajala, dean of engineering at Iowa State University and past president of ASEE. Current students often want to “learn anytime, anywhere” and “use technology like mad,” Rajala notes, but many instructors haven’t kept up with the shifts. How can ASEE encourage effective curricular change for engineering educators that helps at both the practical and research levels? One solution she suggests is to expand to the regional level the kind of workshops offered by NETI (National Effective Teaching Institute) at ASEE’s annual conference.

Take teaching seriously

The emergence of stand-alone departments of engineering education, by providing a direct route between research and its impact on classroom instruction, has enabled pedagogy to adjust to new demands of the marketplace. Already, a growing awareness of effective teaching techniques is spreading among engineering departments, as witnessed by hands-on design projects that have energized first-year programs and student engagement and retention.

A key issue now, says Benson, is harnessing the power of technology to boost engineers’ education. Massive open online courses help schools “deliver quality education to great numbers of students,” but MOOCs won’t replace the residential college experience any time soon. Benson believes the best approach couples online lectures with hands-on projects such as Tech students experience, whether in teams building soccer-playing robots or designing underwater autonomous vehicles. ASEE provides considerable leadership in these areas, says Benson, because “there’s so much that we need to know and that we need to study.” The Society supports engineering educators not only in terms of covering the breadth of all of engineering, he says, “but also by having a focus on education, which is also really key.” Benson notes “a very nice evolution over several decades” at ASEE, “where people take pedagogy as an important area of research. In other words, it isn’t just something we do on the side.”

If ASEE continues to struggle with diversity, it’s not for lack of recognition that women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in most engineering fields. That awareness is due in part to a series of female presidents, starting with Baum in 1995. Attraction and retention in engineering remain a concern for her. Yes, the number of women in academic engineering has gone up – particularly at the Ph.D. and dean level – says Baum. Yet she is appalled to see, even today, “this business of putting barriers up and making it feel like boot camp… instead of nurturing and helping and creating an environment where you help students study.” She’d like to see “more C students in high school thinking in terms of a possibility of a career in engineering.” Women and minority students, in particular, shy away unless they are the “top, top students – which doesn’t hold true for [Caucasian] males,” says Baum. Encourage more average students, she urges: “Not everyone in engineering is at the leading edge of hotshot research.”

A view from the trenches

An emerging generation of engineering educators may point the way to a more inclusive approach and alternate pathways into the field. Katie Nelson is one of this new breed. With a B.A. and M.A. in environmental engineering, she is now earning a Ph.D. at Arizona State University’s Teacher College. Nelson speaks with passion of her interest in pedagogy, noting that most students in the relatively new discipline of engineering education consider themselves “in the trenches,” as they pursue research they believe will produce improved teaching – and engineering practice.

As incoming chair of ASEE’s Student Division, Nelson hopes to tweak the annual conference program to better serve students – adding one-on-one meetings with seasoned experts, for example, rather than large meet-and-greet gatherings. Most significantly, she hopes to encourage greater recognition for student achievements: “We don’t want to just be seen as practitioners,” she says. “We also want to be seen as researchers.” One of Nelson’s studies examines the types of women who remain in engineering rather than those who leave, because “no one has really looked at the staying piece.”

Corridors of power

An important forum for improving education is ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council, a meeting ground where several hundred leaders from a wide range of institutions can share ideas and experiences. “Unless you have the dean of the institution encouraging faculty to learn, to grow, to network, [and] to participate in ASEE, no changes will occur,” Baum observes. In her experience as past chair of the group, it can exert a progressive influence. Through it, even “the most hard-nosed, resistant” deans learn that “education matters; student success matters; curricular trends matter – and they become very different people from when they started their jobs.”

The deans’ council also serves to engage engineers in public policy, with an annual colloquium in Washington, D.C., featuring senior officials from the administration and Congress. Gary May, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, would like to see ASEE become “more of a visible advocate for the profession.” One way to assist that effort, he suggests, is to support better data specific to engineering students that measure attraction and retention. “We do a pretty good job now of just the counting-noses kind of data,” says May, but further analysis could help determine “why trends are the way they are and how to change them in the direction we want them to change.”

An unmistakable and significant trend is the growth in the population of engineering students from overseas, particularly at the graduate level. This has been accompanied by increasing research collaboration between engineers here and abroad. During his tenure as executive director from 1991 to 2010, Frank Huband began a push for international involvement and continues to stress the importance of global exchange. “Having an awareness of what goes on around the world in engineering education helps everyone,” he says. U.S. educators can learn from European schools where active learning is a hallmark, but American educators can demonstrate the continuing value of U.S. graduate studies and retain a strong share of foreign students. “U.S. schools need the income generated by these students to be able to maintain the size and therefore the diversity of [their engineering] programs,” he points out, noting that almost three-quarters of Ph.D. engineering students come from abroad. Beyond the issue of finances, “it helps [American] engineering students to have that diversity in their educational process.”

The process of global engagement works in both directions, notes past president J.P. Mohsen, who finds a “tremendous amount of interest” overseas in how U.S. schools address technology advances and “the way young people are learning, and how they are exposed to the internet and the digital age at a very, very young age.”

Even as they enrich the ASEE mosaic, international students and faculty add another constituency to a complex organization that must accommodate multiple disciplinary, interest, and geographic groups. Even non-engineers are an important part of the mix. Marilyn Dyrud, a communications professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology, serves on two ASEE divisions and was on the Board of Directors from 2009 to 2011. An ethics specialist, she played a key role in developing the Society’s plagiarism policy. Being a non-engineer in an engineering organization is “a running joke in the Engineering Technology Division,” she laughs. But involvement has “truly broadened my own perspective, which in turn allows me to broaden my students’ perspective, which is why I teach.”

To get these myriad groups to pull together poses an ongoing challenge, but it’s one that Mohsen, chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Louisville, thinks must be met. The efforts of ASEE and various other organizations working on issues of K-12 students or underrepresented populations are worthwhile, Mohsen asserts, but “the true benefit of all of these works will not be realized unless we work together.” Closer ties with members of the Corporate Member Council, for example, can help ASEE mine information about the needs of industry in hiring engineers and help translate that into classroom practice.

Balancing competing needs of member groups is not something ASEE has always managed well. At various times, the Society has been swayed by research over practice or favored the interests of deans over teaching faculty. The Society’s various councils, each of which has a seat on the Board of Directors, represent a wide array of topical, institutional, and geographic interest. Emerging constituencies in each of these areas, with new and sometimes competing needs, must be considered, says Norman Fortenberry, ASEE’s executive director since 2011. “We have a very large and broad community associated with or concerned about academic engineering – the people within it, its products, how it operates, the tools it uses to operate – and ASEE has to be concerned about each of those stakeholders and view them as constituents.”

That’s why he says that now, more than ever, the Society must stick to its mandate of serving the membership. So long as it does so, Fortenberry sees reason to be optimistic about ASEE’s future. Like the U.S. Constitution, which celebrated its 225th anniversary last year, ASEE “has broad principles that it adheres to, that adapt to the times and the circumstances.” And as long as ASEE continues to meet the evolving needs of its members, “I think we have another good 120 years, if not more, in front of us.”

Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.

Stand-alone departments of engineering education are raising the discipline’s profiles — and improving first-year learning, teaching, and persistence.
by Margaret Loftus

Holly Matusovich worked as a metallurgical engineer until a particularly stressful long-term assignment prompted her to reassess her career and explore education. It took just a few classes at Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education to make her want to plunge in and become an expert on motivation and learning. “When I got involved in my first research project, it was the coolest thing ever,” recalls Matusovich, one of the nascent department’s earliest Ph.D. candidates. “I absolutely loved it.” Now an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Education, she is intent on making engineering more accessible to students.

Educators have long agreed that rethinking the traditional “chalk and talk” style of teaching is essential if engineering colleges hope to attract, retain, and train a larger, more diverse group of students. Until recently, schools mostly took a scattershot approach. But in the past decade, many have embraced engineering education as a stand-alone discipline, applying research and multidisciplinary scholarship to transform teaching by reconfiguring classrooms, fostering collaboration, and using interactive tools. A few pioneers – at Purdue, Virginia Tech, Utah State University, and Clemson University – have established separate schools or departments dedicated to the discipline.

The emergence of engineering education departments marks a major milestone in a decades-long struggle to bring fresh ideas to the training of engineers while adhering to consistent standards – even as engineering itself keeps advancing. Momentum continues to build as schools respond to calls by industry and political leaders for a dramatic increase in engineering graduates. As one sign, ASEE’s 2002 annual conference had 17 sessions with “teaching” in the title; a decade later, that number had climbed to 100. “There’s a lot of knowledge and research out there,” explains David Radcliffe, the Kamyar Haghighi Head of Purdue’s School of Engineering Education, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. “What we needed to do was develop across the country a critical mass of scholars whose research work was to add to the knowledge base about how engineers learn and help educate future faculty around those techniques.”

Several engineering schools now offer doctorates in engineering education. Others have launched centers that foster research in engineering curriculum design, such as Texas A&M’s new Institute for Engineering Education and Innovation. While proponents agree that these are all positive steps in the discipline’s evolution, having a distinct department with tenured professors bestows legitimacy. “A department is a beachhead,” says Radcliffe, noting that “when we started, nobody had ever gotten tenure in this discipline.” Having a recognized group of engineering education colleagues who teach courses and publish research also makes it easier to share and adopt evidence-based instructional methods. “You’re actually building communities of practice,” says Stephanie Adams, head of Virginia Tech’s engineering education department.

While their reach varies from school to school, engineering education departments have a common core mission: changing how freshmen are taught. “We train future generations to be excellent educators, and we happen to start by preparing them to teach first-year students,” says Adams. Except at Clemson, first-year engineering programs fall under the purview of engineering education departments. One major effort involves finding ways to enliven large introductory lecture classes – which research and retention rates suggest are a poor way to teach freshman – with engaging engineering experiences and applications. “The professor walks to the top of the classroom, and the expectation is that students will be sponges and take it all in,” says Kurt Becker, a Utah State professor of engineering education who recently stepped down as the department head. “We don’t give them enough engineering right out of the block, so as a profession we need to look at the way we’re training them.”

Start with the best

When Utah State launched its engineering education department in 2004, the school — which oversees first- and second-year coursework as well as a pre-engineering associate’s degree offered at four regional campuses — broke with tradition. It assigned top instructors, identified by outstanding track records, to freshman foundational classes. “We said, ‘Let’s put our best people in those classes or hire new people that will do a great job,’ ” Becker explains. Teachers may be reassigned if more than 10 percent of their students earn a D, fail, or withdraw (DFW). Engineering education faculty now are using these large, foundational courses to collect data and publish findings on new pedagogy and assessment strategies. They also have received state funding to develop and deliver foundational engineering courses online. “The word is out about our quality and going beyond the boundaries of our campus,” says Becker.

Engineering education departments also are helping to retrain faculty. Apart from the occasional workshop, most professors aren’t exposed to pedagogy and “are expected to teach with little or no training on how students learn,” says Lisa Benson, an associate professor of engineering and science education at Clemson. Originally a bioengineering professor, she switched fields after becoming interested in how her students developed problem-solving skills. Benson finds that as a default, instructors let their own student experiences inform their teaching. “We should be addressing the needs of students, not the needs we remember we had,” she concludes.

With this in mind, in 2006 Benson and her colleagues borrowed a student-centered method developed by science education researchers at North Carolina State University to flip the way calculus is typically taught. For starters, the classroom was redesigned to accommodate students around 7-foot round tables wired for laptop use, shifting the focus from the instructor to teams collaborating on problems. “Rather than the traditional approach, where 95 percent of the talking is done by the professor, the majority of talking is being done by students, and the majority of the students are engaged,” explains Benson. “Everyone is empowered.” The project posted a DFW rate of 5 percent in its first year, compared with 30 percent for lecture-based calculus sections. Since then, nearly all calculus classes have been taught using the student-centered approach, with similarly positive outcomes.

At Virginia Tech, Matusovich uses an interactive approach in her first-year introductory class called Engineering Exploration. Instead of walking students through problems with PowerPoint slides, she asks them to submit their answers anonymously using tablets loaded with DyKnow software that lets them interact with each other and the instructor. She then chooses several responses to highlight on-screen, allowing students to see that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem. “I like to think of it as building a community,” says Matusovich, who notes that a sense of belonging helps freshmen persist in engineering. “They can see how they’re doing compared to their peers. Often they are so busy, they don’t get that.”

Purdue takes classroom redesign one step further with its i2i Learning Laboratory, a cluster of seven spaces configured to take students through the design process. There’s a media-rich design studio room framed by a wall-to-ceiling whiteboard, where teams of freshmen test out ideas using tablet PCs, video projectors, and data acquisition equipment. The demonstration studio includes CAD stations and other technology for designing and simulating parts. Each component of the lab’s design, teaming, and learning technologies has been informed by engineering education research conducted by department faculty or other scholars. Since the lab’s introduction in 2009, the retention rate for freshmen has risen to 88 percent from around 78 percent.

K-12 research

Departments of engineering education also can be incubators for hybrid bachelor’s degrees that span disciplines or incorporate pedagogy. Purdue’s school, for example, offers a multidisciplinary engineering program that lets students design their own engineering major. At Virginia Tech, students who want to explore teaching practices can earn a certificate in engineering education to complement a bachelor’s degree in their major.

Beyond improving teaching and learning at the college level, engineering education departments figure prominently in research initiatives to boost K-12 engineering education. Virginia Tech, for example, has studied children in Appalachia and their obstacles and pathways into engineering. Purdue created INSPIRE – the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning – to research engineering habits of mind and practice in the precollege years. One project, for instance, finds new ways to provide professional development to third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers who lack science backgrounds.

Such research demands different skills from those required in most other engineering disciplines. As Utah State’s Becker notes, while engineers typically take a quantifiable approach, “with humans, you can’t do that. We use mixed methods, which means qualitative and quantitative.” As a result, Ph.D. engineering education programs tend to attract students who are comfortable straddling the worlds of physical and social science. Department heads say they see less interest from newly minted graduates than from seasoned engineers who, like Matusovich, seek to redirect their careers. “You almost need to have some life experience to appreciate what we’re about,” says Purdue’s Radcliffe, adding that two thirds of his department’s students are women. That’s a dramatic departure from other engineering disciplines, where men outnumber women 5 to 1 on average.

Unlike students in many other doctoral programs, particularly in the social sciences, engineering education graduates enjoy robust job prospects. Though the number of Ph.D.’s remains small, the dozens who have earned a doctorate have gone on to assume first-year engineering leadership roles, conduct postdoctoral research, and teach—often gravitating to innovative, multidisciplinary programs. (Just one Purdue engineering education Ph.D. ended up in industry.) Radcliffe and Adams, whose Virginia Tech department launched shortly after Purdue’s in 2004, envision a day when more of their grads go into industry, policy, and museums. Meanwhile, Matusovich is working on engaging the next generation of engineers. “I want students to have such great experiences that they set the bar higher for what they expect,” she says. “If we can set that bar, we can get top-down and bottom-up change going.”

by Mark Matthews

Mysteries of the Mind

There’s no ASEE logo on the international space station or the Chevrolet Volt. But chances are the Society had some influence over these and countless other technological achievements by helping to guide the training of their creators. Since 1893, ASEE’s passionate educators have shared ideas, battled over curricular changes, and developed standards that altogether made successive generations of U.S.-schooled engineers the envy of the world. They nurtured both the creative spirits behind breakthrough inventions and the painstaking, ethical habits of mind that made air travel safer, skyscrapers stronger, and medical equipment more reliable.

As­ ASEE members point out in the pages of this 120th­-anniversary issue, they can’t rest on their laurels. Just as practicing engineers strive constantly to improve upon products or systems, engineering educators must keep up with rapidly changing demands on their graduates. They know that for tomorrow’s designs to meet America’s needs, engineers will have to reflect the nation’s diversity – which they now don’t. The history of engineering education is thus a story both of expansion – of disciplines, facilities, degree programs, and learning technologies – and of periodic frustration with stubborn problems that defy a quick fix. That’s why ASEE’s 120th annual conference in Atlanta will find members absorbing new teaching approaches and challenging themselves to do better even as they celebrate a Society milestone.

Set in motion last fall by ASEE Executive Director Norman Fortenberry, this special issue of Prism is the work of a small group of big talents: Deputy Editor Mary Lord, Senior Consultant Robin Tatu, Graphic Designer Nicola Nittoli, and Production Coordinator Ray Phillips. Creative Director Lung-I Lo provided guidance and inspiration, Chief Correspondent Tom Grose did his usual stellar reporting job, and Virginia Kozlowski lent impressive design skills toward the end. We’re grateful to Ashley Krawiec and Paula Whitley, whose ad sales help to keep us going.

We hope you enjoy the summer Prism. As always, your comments are welcome.

Mark Matthews



Get the Drift

Jellyfish may be the bane of beachgoers worldwide, but Virginia Tech researchers have found much to admire —and to mimic. The invertebrates’ very low metabolic rate means they use little energy to move, and they inhabit a wide range of depths and temperatures. That makes them an intriguing model for a new type of autonomous underwater robot being developed by mechanical engineering professor Shashank Priya and his graduate students. Last year, the team unveiled a hand-sized robo-jellyfish. This year, they floated a battery-powered prototype named Cyro that’s just over 5.5 feet across and weighs 170 pounds. Its electronic guts are housed in a waterproof, dome-shaped shell covered in a squishy silicone “skin,” with eight mechanical arms underneath for maneuvering. The research is part of a $5 million nationwide project funded by the U.S. Navy to develop self-powered surveillance robots that can remain submerged for long periods without repair and be used to monitor ocean currents or enemy combatants, study aquatic life, or map the sea floor. Researchers hope to eventually design a bio-inspired control system that operates more like real jellyfish, which have no central nervous system and use a diffused network of nerves to move. – Thomas K. Grose


Secrets of Swat

Does any baseball batter have a perfect swing? Not really. Even the best hitters miss or foul roughly two-thirds of the time, on average. Hitting a speeding baseball requires “exquisite control at the very fastest speed, and that’s really, really tough to do,” explains Noel Perkins, a University of Michigan mechanical engineering professor. So Perkins invented a device that could help batters get closer to the holy grail of a perfect swing. It’s a small, flat box that attaches to the base of a bat, below the knob. Inside are wireless sensors that collect a range of motion metrics, including bat speed at impact; reaction time; and whether a swing is level, an upper cut, or a chop. The data then are transmitted to a computer that almost instantly turns the information into a 3-D visual that quickly shows a coach what a batter’s doing wrong — or right. Perkins, whose research was funded by two bat manufacturers, is working with the college to commercialize the device, which probably could be built for as little as $30. Of course, even batters who hone their swing using Perkins’ invention may not lift their batting averages much higher than today’s most consistent sluggers. Even a perfectly hit baseball can be caught. – TG


Time Travelers

One of the airline industry’s little secrets is that even when planes are ready to leave the gate, there’s no telling precisely when they’ll arrive at their destination. Changes in weather, flight patterns, and bottlenecks throw estimates off an average of seven minutes — delays that waste fuel and irritate passengers. To improve predicted arrival times, General Electric recently joined forces with Alaska Airlines to create a contest called Flight Quest, which was hosted on Kaggle, a crowdsourcing platform for data-prediction competitions. A team from Singapore led by French actuary Xavier Conort won the $100,000 first prize. Four other teams also received awards totaling $140,000. Conort’s team used a two-month set of flight data not normally released publicly to create an algorithm that improved estimates by 40 to 45 percent over current industry standards. That could save travelers up to 5 minutes at the gate, and help airlines trim fuel and time crew costs. A second Flight Quest contest is planned to find a way to use data to improve flight strategies once a plane is airborne — such as helping pilots avoid bad weather and stay on schedule. Now if only there were an algorithm to prevent lost baggage. – TG


Tokyo Tech-tots

Alarmed by a waning interest in science among Japanese youth, Shimizukubo Elementary has launched a pilot “science communication” program for all grade levels. The public school’s 152 pupils happen to be minutes from the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology, which has lent not only its microscopes but its scholars in the quest to encourage scientific inquiry. Kids get to tour labs, hear talks by professors, and meet foreign exchange students — all to build a sense of wonder and fun. Now in its third year, the program has made a difference, says vice principal Takayuki Hayakawa, recalling a class of third graders mesmerized by the university’s termite research. Getting students excited about science and technology is more than just an academic issue for this school. It’s located in Tokyo’s once-thriving tech hub, though only about 4,000 small tech companies remain, down by half in recent decades because of outsourcing abroad and a shortage of domestic skilled labor. The 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima, says Hayakawa, also highlights the need to educate a more critical, scientifically literate population. Despite the school’s efforts to engage students, however, even the whiz kids inexplicably still say they “hate” science. —Lucille Craft

Food Supply

Midas Touch

Golden Rice has long been the cause célèbre of bioengineered foods. Developed around a dozen years ago by German and Swiss researchers, the grain is engineered to help combat vitamin A deficiency, a cause of blindness and death in the developing world. A Lancet study estimated that 668,000 children younger than age 5 die from this scourge each year. Greenpeace and other environmental groups opposed to genetically modified foods have long fought against Golden Rice, stymieing planting efforts. Anti-Golden Rice activists claim it’s better to treat vitamin A deficiency with supplements or food-fortification programs. But, as a recent article on the website Project Syndicate explains, supplemental programs cost $4,300 for every life saved, and fortification efforts cost $2,700. The engineered rice? Just $100 for each life saved. Two new studies found that two ounces of Golden Rice can provide 60 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin A. As this evidence mounts, the Philippines will allow Golden Rice to be grown there later this year, and Bangladesh and Indonesia are set to soon follow. The Guardian now reports that Australian researchers are working on a banana that will boost not only Vitamin A levels, but iron levels, too. – TG


Incest App

Dating can get tricky in Iceland, where most of the nation’s 320,000 residents trace their ancestry to a small group of 9th century Viking settlers and thus are distantly related to one another. But the population’s homogeneity and penchant for record-keeping also has its benefits. Biotech company deCODE Genetics used genealogical information to compile the Book of Icelanders, an online database covering 95 percent of all Icelanders of the past 300 years. The company recently ran a contest to find new ways to use its database. The winners were three University of Iceland software engineering students, who developed the App of Icelanders for Android smartphones. (An iPhone version is in the works). Users simply bump phones to find out if they’re related. The app includes an Incest Prevention Alarm that lets individuals who are very closely related know that they’re the kind of cousins who shouldn’t be kissing. – TG


Man-made Quakes?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process used to extract natural gas from shale, has helped produce an energy bonanza in the United States. But forcing of huge amounts of water mixed with chemicals and sand underground to release the trapped gas remains unpopular with environmentalists. Some critics say that beyond polluting groundwater, fracking causes earthquakes. Can it? Studies show that fracking itself only very rarely causes seismic activity. However, burying the wastewater afterwards could indeed be a culprit. A recent study at England’s Durham University looked at 198 human-caused quakes since 1929 and found that fracking caused just three of them, all quite small. Mining and the filling of reservoirs were much more likely to set off quakes. Another study, led by the University of Oklahoma and published in the journal Geology, found that the deep burial of fracking wastewater, or slickwater, probably sparked a magnitude 5.7 temblor in rural Oklahoma in 2011, which damaged 14 houses. Experts told National Geographic News that geologists have long known that wastewater injected into old, dry oil wells can cause quakes. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey poured cold water on the Geology study, saying it determined from its data that the state’s rare quake was “the result of natural causes.” – TG

Green Design

Palmy Skies

City planners wanted the new terminal at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, to incorporate green technologies as a way to deal with extreme temperatures that can range from scorching during the day to bone-cold at night. So British architects Foster + Partners came up with a design inspired by the leaves of local desert palms. The low-rise structure features a series of domes that branch out from supporting columns. Viewed from the sky, the domed roof is also meant to evoke the billowing fabrics of a Bedouin tent whose geometric design allows daylight to bathe the concourse. The building is constructed of heat-dissipating concrete made from local gravel, requiring less energy to make and reducing maintenance costs. The terminal also has open-air courtyards — another nod to local historic architecture — with plants and trees that help filter pollution. Reflecting pools bounce sunlight into the building, designed in modules to allow for future expansion. That’s smart planning, given that traffic at the airport is expected to increase from 3.5 million passengers to 12 million by 2030. – TG


Royal Salute, Redux

On June 25 at Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty herself will present specially designed trophies to the five inaugural winners of the biennial Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The honorees, who were announced in mid-March, will share the £1 million ($1.53 million) prize as well as the credit for being the Internet’s chief architects. Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, and Louis Pouzin created the Internet’s fundamental infrastructure. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. And Marc Andreessen designed the pioneering Mosaic browser that made the Web accessible to the masses. The award was meant to be engineering’s Nobel Prize, replete with front-page headlines. But the world’s media largely ignored the announcement, undercutting the stated intention of inspiring more young people to join the discipline’s ranks. It was also supposed to place a spotlight on ground-breaking innovation that benefits humanity. Although the Internet was a world-rocking invention whose potential benefits have yet to be fully realized, it’s still regarded by most people as a utility. No wonder news editors yawned. – TG


Duct work

If water pipes could speak, would they warn of impending leaks and ruptures? Researchers in Australia, which spends nearly $1 billion a year to repair broken or cracked pipes, think so. A team led by engineer Fang Chen, a professor at Sydney’s University of New South Wales and former dean of electronic and information engineering at Beijing’s Jiaotong University, developed a machine-learning algorithm that can analyze information about a pipe’s breakage history, age, size, location, surrounding soil type, and other variables. The system then recommends which pipes the water utility should repair or replace. The researchers, whose work is backed by the government-funded National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA), estimate that their method will cut costs by roughly one-third through reduced need for expensive emergency digging and doing preventive work before pipes burst or leak. Trials in the city of Wollongong demonstrated the invention’s accuracy. NICTA is now collaborating on a two-year program called Sydney Water to determine its efficacy in Australia’s biggest city. If successful, the system could help local and overseas water companies improve service along with their cash flow.
– Chris Pritchard


Tumor Trap

For cancer patients, a major worry is that some tumor cells will make their way into the bloodstream and eventually spread to other parts of the body, or metastasize. These circulating tumor cells (CTCs) are difficult to track, and thus to treat. Five years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Engineering in Medicine developed a chip that could detect some CTCs that were covered in a common protein. Now the center’s engineers have developed the CTC-iChip, which can find all types of metastasizing cancer cells. The chip initially removes all but white blood cells and CTCs from a blood sample. It then isolates the CTCs by using magnetic nanoparticles that attach to and remove the white cells. The CTCs can be detected even at very low levels, then analyzed in a lab. Early detection of CTCs would let doctors begin therapies more rapidly to halt or slow metastasizing cells. Moreover, studying the captured CTCs may yield insights on how cancers evolve. – TG

Join the Revolution
by Thomas K. Grose

Join the Revolution

Wisconsin’s just-retired dean would put the first two years of engineering online.

America’s public universities are facing a financial crisis as state governments continue to chop funding, prompting tuition and fees to soar. The troubling upshot is that students will just opt out, frets Paul Peercy. And that could prove disastrous for a country whose economic future depends on having more, not fewer, college graduates. Peercy, who retired in March after 13 years as dean of the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s College of Engineering, believes that America’s public universities need to become more productive by harnessing information technology in radical new ways.

Digital solutions, he says, could drastically cut the amount of time and money engineering undergraduates spend earning their degree, enabling schools to graduate more well-prepared students. Peercy envisions making the first two years of basic engineering courses available online so that students could complete them at a low cost, and as early as high school. Only upper-level undergraduate courses would be offered on campus. This time-saving approach would ensure that engineering students not only receive the necessary foundation in science and math but also learn the IT skills they will apply in today’s interdisciplinary, multicultural workplace.

Once on campus, students would continue to take courses that make greater use of digital technology. Peercy is a fan of what’s often called the inverted, or blended, classroom. In this approach, students watch a lecture online and then take a quiz before attending class. A computerized breakdown of quiz results lets the instructor spend class time focusing on areas the students found most problematic. “We can’t continue to just lecture students,” Peercy argues. “We can’t continue to try to teach them using the methods of the Middle Ages. That’s highly inefficient and ineffective.”

Peercy takes naturally to new systems. After earning a physics Ph.D., he joined Bell Labs—America’s “idea factory”—followed by 27 years at Sandia National Laboratories, where he rose to oversee microelectronics, photonics, and semiconductor development. He arrived at Wisconsin in 1999 after four years as president of SEMI/Sematech, the nonprofit semiconductor industries suppliers’ consortium that helped U.S. companies achieve semiconductor dominance. Two years later, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in part for “visionary leadership in creating and managing outstanding laboratories in materials research.”

As dean, Peercy instituted a tutoring program for foundational math and science classes to boost retention and spurred a redesign of the first-year curriculum. Wisconsin’s Introduction to Society’s Engineering Grand Challenges, unveiled in 2008, plunges students immediately into real-world problem solving. Today, the College of Engineering is leading the university’s blended-learning efforts. The impact on student persistence and grades has been so pronounced that the strategic plan calls for flipping 75 percent of core courses over the next several years.

Peercy says this approach cuts study time because students receive instant feedback, and it greatly reduces the hours faculty spend preparing lectures. It also works: Student scores jumped 15 percent, and failure rates dropped from 25 or 30 percent to nearly nil. Peercy points to Carnegie Mellon University research that shows the inverted-classroom approach accelerates learning to the point where a semester’s worth of material can be covered in half the time, with better results and retention of information than in conventional classes.

Peercy admits that such hybrid approaches “go against every tradition” within academia. While the pace of acceptance has accelerated, he says, “it is still bottom-up when it should be more top-down.” Still, from a handful of
courses five years ago, nearly all of Wisconsin’s first- and second-year engineering courses are now blended, as are half of the third-year courses. Peercy says the investment in software needed for blended courses is a one-time expense that in many cases should last for 10 years.

While he won’t call himself a proselytizer for IT-infused classrooms, Peercy notes that he is chairing this October’s Global Engineering Deans Council meeting in Chicago. Its theme? Digital Education and Transformed Faculty Roles.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.

Revisiting 1893

Revisiting 1893

ASEEís birth year witnessed a spectacular display of innovation, progress, and national pride.

The year was a remarkable one for engineers, engineering, and engineering education. Eighteen ninety-three saw the Worldís Columbian Exposition open in Chicago, marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbusís landing in the New World. Of course, as we learned as schoolchildren, that discovery happened in 1492, but planning for the Chicago Worldís Fair ran a bit late.

The scale of the exposition, as imagined by architects Daniel H. Burnham and
John W. Root, was grand. They were the designers of the cityís 10-story Montauk Building, the worldís first structure to be called a skyscraper, and they wanted the fair to be equally distinguished. When Root died suddenly, Burnham was left alone with the responsibility to organize the design and construction of the sprawling complex.

Since the upcoming fair was to occur in the wake of the enormously successful Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, there was a general feeling that Chicago had to top the French fairís soaring symbol. But Burnham did not want just a taller tower than Gustave Eiffelís; he wanted something that showed American engineering to be superior to Franceís. While Burnham praised architects for their artistry in designing the fair proper, he excoriated engineers for not coming up with something to rival and surpass the Eiffel Tower.

A young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. took up the challenge. He produced plans to put a circular structure similar in scale to the Paris tower on an axle and make itóand the 2,160 riders it could carryórevolve. Initially considered lunacy, the Ferris wheel was a tremendous hit and became a veritable symbol of American engineering prowess and achievement.

In the shadow of the Ferris wheel stretched the White City, as the fairgrounds came to be known. Electric power distribution was still in its infancy, and the use of countless incandescent bulbs to illuminate the fairís 600-plus-acre expanse at night was unprecedented. The exhibition buildings of classical design gleamed in the brightness and declared to the world the ever onward march of engineering generally and electrical engineering in particular. Numerous electrical exhibits showed what the future promised.

Amidst the blinding light and dizzying amusement, a number of international scientific and philosophical congresses were held in conjunction with the 1893 exposition. Among these was a Worldís Engineering Congress, whose Section E was devoted to engineering education. It was at the conclusion of this meeting that a group of engineers organized the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

The Societyís constitution specified that regular meetings should be held, preferably in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science or one of the national engineering societies. The first such meeting indeed took place with the AAAS the next August in Brooklyn, N.Y. The proceedings show the membership of the nascent society stood at 156, up about 50 percent since its inception.

In his presidential address at that first annual meeting, DeVolson Wood, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, considered, among other things, three key engineering education topics: What should be taught? How shall it be taught? Who should teach it? These questions understandably have remained of central concern to engineering educators, and they properly continue to be discussed today. Answers may evolve, but fundamental questions always remain relevant.

In 1946, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education was reorganized and renamed the American Society for Engineering Education. ASEE has come far in the past 120 years, but it remains true to its founding principles and overarching concerns.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His most recently published books are An Engineerís Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession and To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.

Think Globally
by Debbie Chachra

Think Globally

Our graduates must be comfortable working across cultures.

I’m part of the Apollo generation. The first thing I ever remember wanting to be when I grew up was an astronaut. As was quickly pointed out to me, this wasn’t a very plausible career path for someone who wore glasses. So I decided I wanted to work for ground control. Later, as a teenager, I briefly dreamed of building fighter jets. (Thank you, Tom Cruise and Top Gun.)

Though I didn’t know it at the time, these choices were deeply shaped by the Cold War and an engineering education system rooted in the successes and demands of World War II and America’s booming postwar industrial economy.

Today, discussions about revamping engineering education often focus on the nation’s need to maintain a competitive economic advantage, as if commerce, technology, and innovation were a zero-sum game. Moreover, this implicitly nationalistic perspective seems just as focused on “winning” as the Cold War engineering of my childhood, although in today’s postindustrial economy, many graduates tend to gravitate to U.S.-based multinationals like Google and Microsoft rather than defense industries or NASA.

But the reality is, our social, economic, and environmental systems are globally intertwined. Problems such as conservation or climate change will require more than purely technical solutions. Consider the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges ( Securing cyberspace, providing access to clean water, and preventing nuclear terror are impossible for any one nation, and responses inextricably contain social and political elements. This means our engineering graduates must not only possess technical skills but also be comfortable working across cultures.

How can we foster cross-cultural familiarity? For a start, all engineering programs could support semesters abroad, particularly to locations with significantly different languages, customs, or living standards. Our students are much less likely to participate in foreign study programs than undergraduates in other majors, in part because of engineering’s heavily constrained curricula. But even within the curriculum, there’s room to innovate. Amy Smith’s D-Lab program at MIT, for instance, focuses on student-invented sustainable technologies to alleviate poverty around the globe. My colleague’s Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship course at Olin College emphasizes income-generating innovations that meet health, agriculture, or other human needs in the developing world. Engineering programs also can encourage students to study world languages. As well as gaining a practical skill, learning another language invariably exposes students to other ways of seeing the world — itself valuable for creative problem solvers.

Even without curricular change, we can encourage our students to think more globally by including examples of engineering and design from other cultures. Reading news from other countries, like the Global Voice project (, or following people from very diverse backgrounds on Twitter can expose students to different perspectives and help them step out of their “filter bubbles.”

Finally, the United States, Canada, Australia, and a few other countries have one tremendous advantage in the globally connected world: a long tradition of immigration. We could do a better job of tapping the global networks of our students and faculty. We also could expand those networks by raising limits on foreign students in our programs. The new Vest Scholarships, named for outgoing National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest, are explicitly designed as a “reverse Rhodes” program to bring graduate students from abroad to the United States to work on Grand Challenges.

In the past century, we’ve gone from a world riven by two great wars and their aftermath to one where nations must collaborate on humanity’s mutually assured survival. It’s time for our engineering programs to evolve to support this new, networked world.

Debbie Chachra is an associate professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. She does research, speaks, and consults on engineering education and the student experience. She can be reached at or on Twitter as @debcha.

Natural Detection
By Liesl Hotaling

Natural Detection

Water-quality sensors build STEM skills and environmental stewardship among whiz kids and struggling students alike.

Sensors are everywhere, from motion-detector light switches to pollution monitors. When used in environmental research projects, they offer a highly engaging, interdisciplinary approach to teaching middle and high school students a multitude of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and skills.

To provide the kind of hands-on, collaborative experiences that lend themselves to sustained inquiry and mastery, we developed a sensor network for water-quality monitoring. The Student Enabled Network of Sensors for the Environment using Innovative Technology, or SENSE IT program, integrates fundamental STEM principles while introducing sensors and technology in the context of protecting the Hudson and St. Lawrence rivers. We then trained 60 teachers to use the equipment and implement a set of carefully crafted curriculum modules tied to state and national science, technology, and math standards. Over the course of two years, some 1,700 students in three regions—rural, urban, and suburban—built, calibrated, and tested a set of sensors and circuits designed to measure water temperature, conductivity, turbidity, and depth.

To build and understand their sensors, students use a wide range of core knowledge of mathematics and physical science. They also learn such practical, hands-on technology skills as soldering and debugging circuits. (The sensors are constructed from scratch using standard off-the-shelf electronics components.)

Students are led through the physics principles, circuitry, and mathematical analysis required to build each sensor, with the aim of demystifying the “black box” effect associated with using commercially available probes in classrooms. They then interface their sensors with computers, write programs to gather raw signals, implement calibration curves, and perform data manipulation and data logging. In addition, students can program their own communications protocols for wireless transmission of the sensor data, and connect their computerized sensor stations to form a distributed wireless sensor network.

Tracked implementation of SENSE IT in classrooms demonstrates that, although additional time and effort are required, it is possible to have students carry out complex problem-based, hands-on projects within the scope of existing standard curricula tied to state and national learning standards. The applied themes of environmental stewardship and sensor networks provide 1) a motivating and meaningful scenario for learning a wide range of core math, science, and technology topics and workforce readiness skills; 2) an awareness of the ubiquity of sensors in our world and the link between the biological, physical, and social sciences, 3) a means to encourage learners to look at local water quality and environmental issues and data from a global perspective; and 4) an opportunity for students to learn about potential careers involved with environmental monitoring and management.

Participating teachers are positive about the benefits of SENSE IT, both in terms of engagement and what students learn. Their responses indicate that successful integration of SENSE IT is due to the flexibility of the curriculum to fit into existing courses and to meet students’ wide-ranging academic levels, from upper-level high school students to middle school students, and from Advanced Placement to courses for students unable to qualify for higher-level science. The research results suggest that participating in SENSE IT led to higher scores on post-tests evaluating algebraic and electrical circuit knowledge for all but the more affluent and academically strong high school students. SENSE IT participation particularly benefited students in low-income schools and weaker students in all schools.

Students also gave SENSE IT high marks. Using a rating scale from A to F, 85 percent of high school students gave it an A or B for enjoyment and about 75 percent awarded an A or B for learning. Over 98 percent of middle school students gave it an A or B for learning and 80 percent for enjoyment. High school students liked the hands-on aspects of the project best, while middle school students liked building and working in groups.

We hope to continue to expand SENSE IT materials, increase the numbers of teachers and pupils exposed to hands-on learning experiences that revolve around sensors, and prepare students for the complex, multidisciplinary challenges awaiting them in today’s technology-focused workplace.

Liesl Hotaling is senior research engineer at the University of South Florida and president of Eidos Education. This is excerpted from “SENSE IT: Teaching principles to middle and high school students through the design, construction and deployment of water quality sensors” in the Summer 2012 Advances in Engineering Education. Coauthors of the original article are Susan Lowes and Peiyi Lin, Teachers College, Columbia University; Rustam Stolkin, University of Birmingham, U.K.; and James Bonner, William Kirkey, and Temitope Ojo, Clarkson University. Learn more about the SENSE IT project at Supported by National Science Foundation NSF ITEST award 0833440


Letter from the President

To MOOC or Not?

Online courses fit well with competency-based education.

By Walter Buchanan

The Bard of Avon knew the power of the written and spoken word, but it’s safe to say he could not have imagined how it would be spread by the Internet. In higher education these days the next big thing appears to be MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. A MOOC can be delivered by one instructor to thousands of students all over the world, for free. Even Shakespeare would be impressed by that.

In this era of rising student debt, my focus as ASEE president is to determine how ASEE can help students see the value of engineering and engineering technology education – and get it in a cost-effective manner. My initial Prism article stressed encouraging and exciting young students about mathematics and science, to ready them for technically rigorous engineering courses in college. But once at university, students should be able to afford their education and not graduate with massive debt. In my last article, I discussed how students can achieve this through enrollment at a lower-cost two-year school before transferring to a four-year institution. Good advising, the ability to transfer credits, and courses that prepare students for the four-year school are all key to this pathway.

Distance education can also play a part in saving money, but the real question for MOOCs is whether they can also deliver effective education. MOOCs fit well with competency-based education, which makes no distinction between knowledge obtained from an online course or through prior learning. A pioneer of this concept is Excelsior College. Begun in 1971 as Regents College, part of the State University of New York, it was the first U.S. college to award degrees based on proof of prior learning. The school became an independent nonprofit in 2001 and gained its current name.

At the center of the Excelsior mission is the idea that what you know is more important than where or how you learned it. Excelsior has designed a student-centered model that is highly responsive to the needs of career-oriented adult learners. It integrates transfer credits from approved sources, courses from Excelsior and other institutions, and credits earned through assessment exams and evaluation of prior learning.

Excelsior College President John Ebersole is passionate about providing open educational resources to help adult learners overcome barriers. Nonetheless, he remains cautious about MOOCs. After the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended in February that institutions grant credit for five Coursera online courses, Ebersole told the Chronicle of Higher Education that given Coursera’s current assessment methods, his school would decline to do so. “We would hope that the ACE would support a rigorous process, as is the case with many other forms of non-collegiate instruction, whereby those seeking credit would complete a psychometrically valid assessment in a secure testing facility.”

At Excelsior, the School of Business and Technology is developing a MOOC that meets Ebersole’s more rigorous standards. Through the foundational course Introduction to Cybersecurity, students from around the world will be able to increase their awareness of data breaches, identity theft, and other cybercrimes and develop fundamental skills to address these issues. In trying out Excelsior’s cybercurriculum, students can also evaluate their interest in cybersecurity programs. But those who hope to complete the course as part of Excelsior’s nuclear engineering technology degree – the only ABET-accredited online course in this field – will face more rigorous, though flexible, evaluation and testing.

The competency-based model has expanded to other public colleges nationwide, including New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, founded in 1972, and more recently and well known, the Western Governors University. In just a few years Western Governors has burgeoned to over 25,000 students. Another recent player is the Colorado State University–Global Campus, the first and only 100 percent online, fully accredited public university in the United States. Many other schools are starting to offer online courses and credit prior learning. Southern New Hampshire University may soon become the first college to award federal student aid based not on credit hours but on a series of measured competencies. And many other universities are moving toward credit for MOOCs – California State University, Arizona State, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Arkansas system, and Georgia State University, to name a few.

The real question in all of this is whether online learning is as good as that gained from traditional instruction. Most of us may feel that, if the finances allow it, attending a residential four-year school is preferable, as students benefit from the social atmosphere and face-to-face instruction. Yet nontraditional adults returning to college now outnumber traditional students. These adult learners, who often cannot leave work to attend college during the day, have up until now been limited to evening courses. Numerous students, traditional or nontraditional, are also constrained by the soaring costs of college. MOOCs offer assistance in both cases; but whether they are the best answer is yet to be determined. Whatever path we follow, educators need to ensure that the education that is received is not watered down to fit the circumstances. That would be a great disservice not only to the individual but also to society in general.

Walter Buchanan is president of ASEE.


Christi Patton Luks

Accidental Engineer and Educator

Had she not passed out watching a film about open-heart surgery during a pre-med class at Texas A&M, Christi Patton Luks might have become a physician. Instead, the Fort Worth native looked for a new major that would not mean loss of credit hours, compared graduates’ starting salaries, and switched into chemical engineering. “It was probably the wrong way to choose a career, but it worked,” laughs Patton Luks.

Serendipity and spunk—not planning—similarly pulled Patton Luks into teaching after she began her career at an industrial chemical plant. Finding a sour economy in Tulsa, Okla., on moving there with her husband, she enrolled at the University of Tulsa to pursue a degree in applied mathematics. “Two children and a divorce later,” she decided to earn a Ph.D. in computer science, a hot area because of the late 1980s Internet boom. Again, fate intervened. Walking down the hall at Tulsa, Patton Luks ran into the chemical engineering professor who offered a paid assistantship and enrollment in the Ph.D. program – if she could start immediately.

Having “backed into chemical engineering by happenstance,” Patton Luks never left, becoming the first woman at Tulsa in chemical engineering. She has since been joined by two more. Her expertise in automotive fuel cells and alternative energy has led to lots of “incredibly interdisciplinary” teaching experiences, including starting a middle school Challenge X car-design team. In trying to make chemical engineering less forbidding to students, she ranges far. “If you’re putting yourself in a box, I don’t think you’re going to be nearly as effective,” she says. Her love of cooking, for instance, means lots of food examples — such as assigning students to do nutrition labels for chocolate-coated Oreos or explaining the energy of mixing by making ice cream. “We get to eat our product!” notes Patton Luks, who also works with Engineers Without Borders.

As a Girl Scout leader for 19 years, Patton Luks engages in “girly activities” with a STEM twist, like letting the girls dismantle a broken electric fan and use the parts for an art project. She hopes to use her position as chair of ASEE’s Council of Sections for Zone III and board member to inspire other engineering educators with her zest for the discipline. Where other professional conferences leave her “exhausted,” she departs from ASEE’s “more energized and with great new ideas.”

Jeffrey Ray

Engineering Technology Talent Scout

Jeffrey Ray gained his academic credentials in mechanical engineering and biomedical research. But as a teacher, he likes to draw on his precollege experience as a journeyman industrial electrician. In an era of videos and online learning, ASEE’s Engineering Technology Council chair finds there’s still no substitute for a lab where students can hear and see something break, nor one for real-world industry-sponsored projects. Ray recalls with pride the former students who performed well enough to get their names on a patent or become favored suppliers of technologies to companies, as well as the student who, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, interested oil companies in a design to cap the gushing well.

Early years as a production troubleshooter serve Ray well as the six-year dean of engineering technology and management at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. “I continually monitor students,” he says, noting he has hired a professional academic adviser to help those who are struggling. This attention, plus a focus on diversity, contacts with the K-12 community, and outreach to the service organization 100 Black Men has helped SPSU – though not a historically black institution — graduate the most African American men with bachelor’s degrees in engineering technology two years running.

Ray has been similarly proactive in keeping SPSU’s engineering technology programs viable in the face of growing competition for undergraduates. When Georgia allowed an expansion of traditional engineering programs, pulling students away from his school, Ray and his colleagues worked out a statewide 2-plus-2 articulation agreement to admit students from the Technical College System of Georgia.

A Tennessee native (“My parents are from Difficult, Tenn., up the road from Defeated”), Ray spent five years as an electrician before entering Tennessee Technological University and moving from there to Vanderbilt for his Ph.D., conducting research in the mechanical engineering department and the Medical Center’s orthopedics unit.

Finding a natural home in engineering technology, which appeals to his industrial bent, Ray says his goal is increasing the number of students in ET and “focusing on their success.” But there’s a danger to their achieving success too early, and one that causes him concern. Students get snapped up for internships that often turn into jobs, and as a result, the overall graduation rate is low. Maybe the school’s new silver LEED-certified $38 million engineering technology center – which Ray oversaw – will entice more to stay.

ASEE Board of Directors 2013 Election Results

ASEE members elected Nicholas Altiero to serve as ASEE president-elect for 2013-2014. Altiero is dean of the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane University. He will assume the position of ASEE president-elect at the 2013 Annual Conference and become president the following year.


Full election results for all ASEE offices are as follows:

Nicholas Altiero (373 votes)
Dean of Science and Engineering
Tulane University

Pat Fox (329 votes)
Associate Chair, Technology
Leadership and Communication Department
Purdue School of Engineering & Technology
Indiana University/Purdue University, Indianapolis

Vice President, External Relations
Bevlee Watford (414 votes)
Associate Dean, Academic Affairs
Professor, Engineering Education
Virginia Tech

Grant Crawford (284 votes)
Director, Mechanical Engineering Program
Civil and Mechanical Engineering Department
U. S. Military Academy

Vice President, Finance
Terri Morse (390 votes)
Program Director, Engineering Operations & Technology
The Boeing Co.

John Mason (296 votes)
Vice President for Research
Associate Provost
Auburn University

Chair, Professional Interest Council I
Adrienne Minerick (451 votes)
Associate Professor, Chemical Engineering Department
Michigan Technological University

Gene Dixon (193 votes)

Associate Professor, Department of Engineering
East Carolina University

Chair, Professional Interest
Council IV
Maura Borrego (376 votes)
Associate Professor, Engineering Education
Virginia Tech

Beth Holloway (269 votes)
Director, Women in Engineering Program
Purdue University, West Lafayette

Chair, Professional Interest
Council V
Lea-Ann Morton (333 votes)
Assistant Vice Chancellor for University Advancement
Missouri University of Science & Technology

Linda Krute (300 votes)
Director, Engineering Online Program
North Carolina State University

Write-in Vote (1 vote)

Chair-Elect, Zone II
Ruby Mawasha (161 votes)
Assistant Dean, College of Engineering & Computer Science
Wright State University

Gary Steffen (109 votes)
Associate Professor and Chair
Computer, Electrical, & Information Technology.
Indiana University/Purdue University, Fort Wayne

Chair-Elect, Zone IV
Eric Wang (62 votes)
Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Nevada, Reno

Amelito Enriquez (35 votes)
Professor, Engineering & Mathematics Science &
Technology Division Cañada College


Call for Nominations

The ASEE Nominating Committee, chaired by Immediate Past President Don Giddens, requests member participation in nominating board officers for the 2014 ASEE elections. Officers to be nominated for Society-wide positions are: president-elect; vice president, member affairs; and chairs of Professional Interest Councils II and III.

  • All nominees must be individual members or institutional member representatives of ASEE at the time of nomination and must maintain ASEE membership during their term of office. Nominating Committee members are not eligible for nomination. The slate of candidates selected by the committee will not exceed two candidates per office.
  • Candidates for president-elect must be active members who have served or are serving on the Board of Directors. Candidates for vice president, member affairs shall be chosen from those who have served as zone chairs.
  • Candidates for chair of the Engineering Research Council, chair of the Engineering Technology Council, and chair-elect for Zone I and Zone III will be nominated and selected by their respective councils and zones, as the ASEE Constitution stipulates.
  • For each proposed candidate for a Society-wide office, submit a biographical sketch of fewer than 400 words that documents career contributions, ASEE offices held, awards and recognitions received, and educational background. Include comments on leadership qualities, ability to cooperate with others to achieve objectives, and willingness to serve if elected. A listing of members who meet constitutional eligibility requirements for the offices of president-elect and vice president, member affairs is available from the executive director’s office at ASEE headquarters.

Send nominations in writing, marked confidential, by June 1, 2013. For nominations for the office of president-elect, please include an advocacy statement. Mail nominations to Don P. Giddens, Chair, ASEE Nominating Committee, ASEE, 1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

Regions, Sections, & Divisions

The ASEE Today section of Prism welcomes brief reports from Council, Section, and Division leaders providing highlights of their meetings. These reports should be no more than 200 words and provide the meeting’s date, location, and the name of the group that convened it. Submissions should be sent to, allowing at least six weeks for publication.

Follow the Evidence
by Susan Singer & Karl Smith

Follow the Evidence

Discipline-based education research dispels myths about learning
and yields results ñ if only educators would use it.

Last year, the National Research Council released the report Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. That consensus study, on which we served as committee members, brought together experts in physics, chemistry, biology, the geosciences, astronomy, and engineering, as well as higher education researchers, learning scientists, and cognitive scientists to focus on how students learn in particular scientific and engineering disciplines. Our key conclusion: Findings from the growing field of discipline-based education research (DBER) have yet to spur widespread changes in the teaching of science and engineering. 

For example, research-based instructional approaches to teaching that actively engage students in their own learning, such as group projects, have been shown to be more effective than traditional lectures. Yet science and engineering faculty still cling to familiar practice. While there’s no magic solution for adopting evidence-based teaching practices, finding out what is known about undergraduate learning in engineering and science—and identifying impediments to implementation in the classroom—can point the way.  

First, many students have incorrect understanding about fundamental concepts—particularly phenomena that are not directly observable, such as those involving very large or small scales of time and space. Understanding how educators can help students change these misconceptions is in the early stages, but DBER has uncovered some effective instructional techniques. One promising approach is to use “bridging analogies” that link students’ correct knowledge with the situation about which they harbor false beliefs. For instance, a student may not believe that a table can exert a force on a book resting on its surface but accepts the notion if a spring is placed under the same book. Linking these two ideas, with perhaps an intermediate of a book resting on a foam block, can move the student toward a correct understanding of forces.

Students also are challenged by important aspects of engineering and science that can seem easy or obvious to experts. When tackling a problem, for instance, students tend to focus on the superficial rather than on its deep structure. Instructors may have an “expert blind spot” and not recognize how different the student’s approach is from their own, which can impede effective instruction. Several strategies appear to improve problem-solving skills, such as providing support and prompts—known as “scaffolding”—as students work their way through problems. Another common issue for students in all disciplines is difficulty in extracting information from graphs, models, and simulations. Using multiple representations in instruction is one way to move students toward expertise.

The report recommends future DBER research that explores similarities and differences in learning among various student populations, and longitudinal studies that shed additional light on how students acquire and retain an understanding (or misunderstanding) of concepts. However, we also need strategies that translate the findings of DBER and related research into practice. That includes finding ways around barriers, such as the faculty reward system, the relative value placed on teaching versus research, lack of support for faculty learning to use research-based practices, problems with student evaluations, and workload concerns.

The report urges universities, disciplinary organizations, and professional societies to support faculty efforts to use evidence-based teaching strategies in their classrooms. It also recommends collaboration to prepare future faculty members who understand research findings on learning and teaching and who value effective teaching as part of their career aspirations. By implementing these recommendations, engineering and science educators will make a major first step toward using DBER to improve their practice—and learning outcomes.

Susan Singer, the Laurence McKinley Gould Professor of the Natural Sciences at Carleton College, chaired the National Research Council committee that prepared the consensus study. Karl Smith, the Cooperative Learning Professor of Purdue Universityís School of Engineering Education and emeritus professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, represented engineering on the committee. To view the report, visit