Re-engineering: How One Department Tinkered With Its Instructional Model

Here’s a bit more background on the recent changes in the first-year courses at Villanova University’s College of Engineering, which were briefly sketched in this week’s article about department-level reforms in instruction and assessment.

Non-engineers, don’t be too quick to assume that this post has nothing to do with you. Engineering programs are dealing with an especially sharp version of a challenge that faces all of higher education. Employers and other stakeholders want universities to produce a larger and more diverse work force in engineering, so there’s a growing consensus that high sophomore-attrition rates are no longer acceptable.

But those same stakeholders will come down hard on any programs whose graduates aren’t competent engineers. So the goal, at Villanova and elsewhere, is to improve completion without lowering academic standards.

Villanova’s sophomore-retention rates have recently been strong, with rates above 80 percent since at least 2002. But its deans felt that those rates could move even a few percentage points higher, and they also wanted to do a better job of helping students select majors and preparing them for difficult upper-level courses. After conducting student-focus groups in 2007, Villanova administrators studied redesigned first-year courses at Notre Dame, Clemson, and several other institutions.

The new Villanova system, which began in the fall of 2009, breaks the first year of engineering instruction into four quarters, each of which is seven weeks long.

During the first quarter, students take a core course that reviews basic concepts in engineering and mathematics. But the course isn’t all theory: It also includes a series of small-scale hands-on projects. (For more details about the core course, see this presentation from a recent meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education.)

In the second and third quarters, students do two extensive hands-on projects, which they select from a menu of five. The options include designing an electric car, analyzing the properties of a steel beam, building LEGO-based robots, using acoustic technologies to search for flaws in concrete beams, and designing an artificial kidney. Each project is multidisciplinary, led by faculty members from at least two departments.

At the end of the third quarter, students declare their majors: chemical, civil, mechanical, or computer and electrical engineering. They spend the final quarter of freshman year in an intensive seven-week introductory course for whichever major they have chosen.

The project was led by Gerard F. Jones, the college’s associate dean for academic affairs. Here are excerpts from recent interviews with Mr. Jones:

Q. Five years from now, how will you know whether these curriculum changes have worked?

A. To a large extent, we’re going to measure this by asking the faculty who teach the upper-level courses how they perceive the level of preparedness for this crop of students versus what they saw before. Some of that will come down to anecdotal experiences and the general impressions that those faculty have. Are these students well grounded in the principles of physics, the use of computers for data collection and analysis? And so on.

Junior year tends to be the technically toughest part of the program. By that time, students will really need the skills that they ought to acquire in the freshman year.

Q. When you and your colleagues looked at other first-year courses around the country, what did you learn?

A. We had already included a fair amount of hands-on and experiential learning in our first-year courses. We’ve increased that in our new model, but it isn’t new for us. What we saw when we looked around the country is that there are a lot of engineering schools that are very familiar with and committed to hands-on learning.

But there are a lot of other programs that are just coming around to that realization. It’s not as pervasive as you might think. I think there are a lot of schools out there that are still doing freshman lecture formats in problem solving, computer programming, mechanical drawing—but with very little hands-on experience.

Q. One of your goals for the first year is that students should walk away with a strong “understanding of the processes of engineering modeling, analysis, simulation, and design.” Do your new courses teach those principles more explicitly than your old courses did?

A. Our old model included those elements, but it was segregated into two parts. A little bit of analysis and design was taught early in the first semester. But how do you do analysis and design in engineering? Through computer simulation. And that wasn’t taught until the spring. So the students had to recall the principles of design, analysis, and structure from back in the fall, and it was sometimes hard for them to close that loop.

The projects in the new model pull all of that together in a much more cohesive way. We’re introducing students to the principle of finite elements, and in one of our projects students are using software to do simulations of structural designs. So you’re an 18-, maybe 19-year-old freshman, and you’re getting some exposure to finite elements in the fall of your freshman year. Those are principles that they’ll use extensively in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering.

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