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2013 July 29

Integrated engineering education

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Mark Guzdial, in The challenges of integrated engineering education, discusses “integrated engineering education”, a curricular approach to getting engineers to learn the prerequisite science and mathematics better:

The idea of integrated engineering education is to get students to see how the mathematics and physics (and other requirements) fit into their goals of becoming engineers. In part, it’s a response to students learning calculus here and physical principles there, but having no idea what role they play when it comes to design and solving real engineering problems. (Computer science hasn’t played a significant role in previous experiments in integrated engineering education, but if one were to do it today, you probably would include CS — that’s why I was invited, as someone interested in CS for other disciplines.) The results of integrated engineering education are positive, including higher retention (a pretty consistent result across all the examples we saw), higher GPAs (often), and better learning (some data).

But these programs rarely last. A program at U. Massachusetts-Dartmouth is one of the longest running (9 years), but it’s gone through extensive revision—not clear it’s the same program. These are hard programs to get set up. It is an even bigger challenge to sustain them.

Overall, I wasn’t convinced that integrated engineering education efforts are worth the costs. Are the results that we have merely a Hawthorne effect? It’s hard to sustain integrated anything in American universities (as Cuban told us in “How Scholars Trumped Teachers”).

I can believe that integrated programs are hard to set up and maintain—any interdisciplinary program that relies on courses offered by other departments is hard to maintain. Even if each individual department has a high degrees of curricular stability, the combination of many fields and many departments can be unstable.

The bioinformatics and bioengineering programs at UCSC rely on courses from about 8 different departments.  Essentially every year one or more of the departments makes a “minor” change to their curriculum that affects our students—nearly always adversely.  The biggest problems come from the Chemistry department, as they keep adding more and more courses in the prerequisite chain to biochemistry—to the point now where there is more chemistry in the bioengineering degree than any two other subjects (and chemistry is not the core science of bioengineering).  The only solution we’ve been able to think of is for the School of Engineering to offer their own abbreviated chemistry sequence (one quarter general chem, one quarter O. chem, one quarter biochem), but we have neither the instructional wet lab space nor the teaching resources to do this currently.  Getting resources from the dean seems unlikely—the dean just gave away the only instructional wet lab space to a researcher (despite the courses already scheduled in the space for next year), and we don’t have the faculty to meet even our current teaching load if any one takes sabbatical leave.

Some of the ideas of integrated engineering education are good: getting students to see the point of learning math and physics before they take the courses, rather than 3 years later, certainly improves their focus and desire to learn the material.  It is not clear that “integrated engineering” is the only, or best, way to do this.  Early design and lab courses may be as effective, without needing such tight coordination among many departments.  (I think that this is the approach that Olin College of Engineering uses, though they are a small enough school that one could argue that they are essentially doing integrated engineering no matter how they structure the curriculum, as long as the faculty talk to each other.)  Of course, lab and design courses are the most expensive ones to teach, as you need competent mentors, and both time and space in the labs and workshops.

Engineering education is properly a hands-on activity, not suitable for large lectures and MOOCs, though those are much cheaper to scale up to large numbers.  I think that a lot of the interest in, and difficulty in maintaining, integrated engineering education is the hands-on nature of most integrated engineering courses.  Physics, math, and chemistry departments are not interested in providing intense hands-on courses for engineering students (though they might produce such courses for their own majors)—at least, not if they can get away with minimally staffing a mega-lecture course.

1 Comment »

  1. Olin would probably call their method “integrated engineering” as well as “early design”. Olin’s courses are (intentionally) also constantly evolving, so if he’s tossing out UMass-Darthmouth for extensive revision, I’m sure that he wouldn’t be a fan of the way Olin does things.

    Olin’s a very small school and there are NO departments. The courses are listed by departments, but that’s more for graduation credit accumulation than anything else. The professors’ are all considered part of one group (although their titles may indicate their specialty) and often teach courses that other schools would consider to be in another department. For example, Sanjoy Mahajan taught a Physics Foundation course in Spring 2013 on Waves. This fall he’ll be teaching a Bayesian Inference & Reasoning course, which most students will take to satisfying their math requirement for a prob & stat course.

    This fall, you’ll find Lynn Stein teaching both an Engineering course (Human Factors in Interface Design) and an Arts & Humanities course (What is I?). You’ll also see Design Nature taught by an associate professors of material science, design and mechanical engineering, mechanical engineering, and physics (and all 4 will teach the course together to all the 1st year students).

    Also note that at Olin, there are only engineering majors and all professors are advisors. So, your advisor may specialize in anthropology or math or biology or art, but still advise you as a mechanical engineering major. People do transfer between advisors to get better fit (both for personal fit and for fit of interests), but it’s certainly not required.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2013 July 29 @ 13:17 | Reply

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