Projects Pose Grand Challenge

DN Staff

December 5, 2005

6 Min Read
Projects Pose Grand Challenge

Collegiate engineering curriculum has helped keep the U.S. in the forefront of technology since the Sputnik days, but educators and students alike feel the need to augment textbook learning with more projects. "The way things work in the real world is a lot different than what they paint in the classroom, where everything's idealistic," says Nick Miller, who recently received his ME degree from Carnegie Mellon University.

Miller's first two years were largely textbook-based in what he says was "a curriculum with no flexibility." After his sophomore year, he got into classes that involved some hands-on work.

For a self-described builder, that brought coursework to life. "It's really interesting to see how something real comes out of a textbook or a lecture. Doing real-world applications makes things stick," Miller says.

That's something that American universities are taking to heart. Adding more hands-on projects is a key thrust for educators trying to rejuvenate the country's interest in engineering.

"I feel we can get rid of a lot of book learning, replacing it with projects. That's not to make it easier, it's to get complex challenges in front of students early on," says Sue Kemnitzer, deputy director at the National Science Foundation's Engineering Education Division.

These changes are needed to keep the U.S. competitive. The number of engineering graduates in the U.S. has been flat at best for the last decade, prompting educators to look for ways to get more students to enroll-and complete-engineering degrees.

The push is especially important as globalization helps countries like India and China compete with the U.S. Though numbers for foreign countries are varied and hard to come by, many observers say China graduated over 300,000 engineering students last year, more than five times the 60,000 U.S. level.

National importance

"This is a critical issue for our country. Only about one in 20 high school graduates are ready for an engineering education in college, down from one in eight. In China, one in three students is involved in engineering," says Richard Miller, president of Olin College, one of the nation's newest engineering schools. The Needham, MA, university was founded in 2000 to focus solely on engineering.

Unlike most engineering schools, Olin includes a hands-on project in almost every semester. "People remember amazing detail from projects, but not a lot from coursework, the Olin president says.

Olin and other engineering schools find that these projects help with a key issue-preventing engineering students from defecting to other majors that often require less homework. "Olin is one of the premiere colleges trying to fix the retention problem," says Ray Almgren, vice president of academic relations at National Instruments.

The few startups like Olin are an obvious place to develop project-oriented coursework. The University of North Texas, which is adding an EE department to its College of Engineering, is using a $1 million NSF to create projects that begin at the freshman level and continue through successive years.

The university is bringing in instructors from nearby industries to help assure that these projects integrate theory, practice, and business sense. "The combination of classroom studies and real-world experiences is critical for ensuring that electrical engineering graduates will be prepared to succeed as electrical engineers," said Dr. Murali Varanasi, chair of UNT's Department of Electrical Engineering.

Ultimate project?

CMU grad Miller really represents the lure of hands-on studies. In his senior year, he got involved in what may be the ultimate in hands-on research, helping design the Red Team Racer that placed second in the DARPA Grand Challenge race. "I felt this is why I came to school," he says.

Many universities viewed the Grand Challenge as a way to increase visibility for their engineering schools. Nearly half the 23 finalists were tied to universities, and many other colleges tried out.

When DARPA scheduled a second Grand Challenge race and upped the prize to $2 million, the new graduate set aside his job search to continue working on the racer. "I worked for a stipend, basically room and board. This was like being in a startup, we did fund raising, design, testing," Miller says. He estimates that he spent 80-90 hours a week on the project.

Most college projects don't get the national attention afforded DARPA's autonomous vehicle race. But these projects often do good work, and some are receiving attention from national agencies. For example, Purdue University won the National Academy of Engineering's Gordon Prize for its Engineering Projects in Community Service program. EPICS links engineering students with charitable and governmental groups that need help with technical issues such as computing and communications.

"This really improves our engineering graduates' ability to work on teams, respond to customers and understand the broad scope of how their work fit into the corporate goals," said Dr. Jamieson, associate dean for Undergraduate Education at the Purdue College of Engineering in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Social value

Projects that show how engineering can help improve society are particularly desirable, in part because they attract women, who account for a small percentage of engineering students. "Studies show that there's increased retention when students have socially relevant projects," Almgren said.

Projects are being promoted not just because they enhance learning and keep students involved. They also appear to help attract more women and minorities.

Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering is currently revising its engineering coursework under a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The school's 25 percent female enrollment is above the 19 percent national average for engineering enrollment, but Hopkins' 7 percent level for minorities is below the national average of 17 percent. A three-year study aims to increase both percentages.

"We want to completely revamp the engineering curriculum so that it will be more attractive to a wider range of students without compromising its technical rigor," says Ilene Busch-Vishniac, a mechanical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins.

Other challenges for college professors include creating projects and implementing them, two tasks which can each be time consuming, particularly for smaller schools. The NSF is providing a number of grants designed to help professors add projects to their coursework. During 2006, Auburn University's Laboratory for Innovative Technology and Engineering Education will be developing multimedia case studies that can be used to help students solve them.

Developing an autonomous vehicle for DARPA's Grand Challenge "was why I came to school," Carnegie Mellon University grad Nick Miller says.

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