Rebuild the Foundation
We should incorporate successful aspects of graduate education in teaching undergraduates.
Opinion by Madhukar Vable
When it comes to graduate education, U.S. engineering schools are clearly getting something right: They attract scholars and students from all over the world. At the same time, undergraduate engineering struggles to draw in women and minorities, 20 percent of the students drop out after one year, and 40 percent fail to graduate in six years. What can we borrow from graduate education to enhance the undergraduate experience?
Two hallmarks of our graduate program success are a high level of faculty-student interaction and the synergy between scholarship and teaching. Graduate classes are taught by tenured scholars in small sections, where we know the names of all the students in the class. Teaching often draws on notes incorporating new research. Students’ questions are usually answered by teacher-scholars in their offices.
Compare this with the way we educate undergraduates. We want them to understand that ideas can be manipulated using symbols, so we require them to take mathematics. Students need to know that in order to command nature we must first obey it, so we require them to take physics and chemistry. We also want our students to be effective communicators, so we require them to take humanities courses. The net impact of these requirements is that our foundation courses have huge enrollments. They are taught in classes comprising multiples of hundreds of students, often by part-time instructors. The textbooks used are exorbitantly priced yet unsullied by research or contemporary engineering applications. The job of answering student questions may be left to teaching assistants.
We then steer students into specific disciplines, each with its own jargon and methodologies, which are often different from those they learned in foundation courses. We thus fragment the intrinsic beauty of engineering and dilute students’ motivation to continue.
A vehicle exists to correct the flaws of undergraduate teaching and adopt the best elements of our graduate programs: interdisciplinary education. For example, freshman physics is a prerequisite for a course in dynamics I taught for sophomores in mechanical engineering. I have both the competence and the skills necessary to teach the freshman physics course, using examples and problems that demonstrate the application of the physics principles in mechanical engineering. In a similar manner, faculty from other disciplines could do the same. The sum total of examples and problems showing the applications of physics principles in different disciplines would grow over time. Different application perspectives would enhance students’ motivation and understanding of the physics principles.
The same method could be applied to any class that has a prerequisite course in a different department. Mechanics of materials may now be housed in mechanical engineering, but it’s also a prerequisite for structural courses. Therefore, faculty in civil and aeronautical engineering would also teach the course.
In the place of high-priced textbooks, a good set of notes could be created from the slides, examples, and problems of applications in different disciplines. Print-on-demand technology would allow distribution of notes at nominal prices for the prerequisite courses. Such dissemination could be a money maker for a university, offsetting some of the extra cost of teaching smaller sections.
How does one decide how many faculty from a department should teach a prerequisite course? Using historical data, let us say 120 mechanical engineering students take the freshman physics course. Four sections of the physics course would be taught by mechanical engineering faculty, assuming a section size of 30 students.
Interdisciplinary thinking would permeate the current curriculum without the need to redesign it. Smaller classes would allow more faculty-student interaction. Class notes would have contemporary applications from different disciplines—in essence, replicating the two hallmark elements that make our graduate program world renowned.
We need to address the problems that dissuade our undergraduates from continuing in engineering. Interdisciplinary education can help us accommodate large enrollments without discouraging students. We are faculty-farmers who help our undergraduates grow. A farmer who feasts on his seeds will not be a farmer long.
Madhukar Vable is a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics at Michigan Technological University.