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starting over at sherbrooke

When the Quebec university's mechanical engineering department decided to retool, it went all the way, recreating its entire roster of courses.

By Thomas K. Grose

Last May, in a field near Belleville, Ontario, a small rocket blasted off and soared nearly a mile and a half into space. It was the first of two successful launches of a prototype of a test rocket. By NASA standards, such a display would be nothing more than a party trick of the pyrotechnical kind.

But for the nine fourth-year students from Quebec's Université de Sherbrooke's mechanical engineering department, who designed and executed the lift-off, the event was no aeronautical sleight-of-hand—it meant they were nearer their goal of creating a rocket that could launch the next generation of micro- and nano-satellites into orbit at a fraction of current costs. The experiment is a concurrent project assigned to them over the last three semesters (18 months) of their undergraduate program. Before getting their diplomas this month, they will have hopefully put an 11-pound payload 31 miles into space aboard the actual test rocket.

Four years ago, such an ostentatious display of undergraduate engineering acumen and talent could not have occurred. Back then, Sherbrooke's mechanical engineering students, like most others in Canada, had few opportunities to put classroom theory into practice. To be sure, the ME program has always included co-op experiences, which meant that its students spent a few semesters en route to a bachelor's degree working for companies as interns. But they weren't specifically taught how to apply the math and science they learned in class to real-life situations and problem-solving.

The students working on the test rocket were part of an even greater experiment. They were among the first 100 undergraduates—all of whom graduated this month—to benefit from a complete overhaul of the Quebec university's mechanical engineering department. It was a renovation so all-encompassing that it entailed recreating the department's entire roster of courses so that students would learn how to make their newly gained knowledge work for them. The goal was to give students everything they would need to know to practice mechanical engineering in the 21st century.

Ground Zero

But let's rewind to 1990, when the Sherbrooke ME department first began to think there might be a better way to teach the craft. Throughout the 1980s, industry had complained about the quality of engineering graduates. It wasn't that the grads weren't smart, or didn't know the necessary math and science, but they lacked know-how—the ability to apply their book smarts to work projects. Moreover, they often didn't understand teamwork and were commonly poor communicators. Clearly, the Canadian school's mechanical engineering department wasn't the only one wrangling with these issues. In the U.S., the new ABET criteria arose from a similar set of concerns.

The mechanical engineering department realized that reform was needed, but wasn't sure how to do it. So the department—which has 25 professors, 400 undergraduates, and 75 post-graduate students—went down the usual academic route. In 1992, it appointed a task force of six profs. The committee members took two years to pore over existing literature, visit universities in the U.S. and Europe, and talk to their colleagues in Sherbrooke's education department. In 1994, they offered a revolutionary conclusion: deconstruction. "We proposed the first revamping of an undergraduate curriculum from scratch, the elimination of all existing courses," explains Martin Brouillette, a professor of mechanical engineering and one of the six task-force members. "We convinced our peers that we needed to distinguish ourselves, because our department was like all the others in Canada."

In deciding how to change the curriculum, the task force took a top-down approach and asked basic questions: What does it mean to be an engineer? What do you need to do your job, and when do you need it? Because the basic math and science hasn't changed, the committee recommended an overhaul that would not change the content of the courses so much as rearrange it. "Our motto was to integrate the knowledge as much as possible," he says. The department agreed to make the changes, then set about rewriting some courses and creating new ones. That process took another two years and was once again accomplished by task force— this time dividing the entire department into committees. The revamped curriculum was finally ready to put into place in the fall of 1996.

New key courses include design methodology, engineering communications, and computer exploitation. Additionally, the department now teaches classes in teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving. And not only do the students take courses in teamwork, but they are constantly practicing it. Each semester, each student is part of a team tackling a project that encompasses the material they're covering in each of their courses. Last year, for example, some first-year students had to design an amusement park attraction that relies on the virtual-reality technology used in flight simulators. The projects are graded and the results count for 30 percent of the students' final course grades. To make the whole thing work, each semester's courses also relate to one another.

"The professors act as a team and meet regularly to plan and to ensure that there is a flow of teaching, that one class rolls easily into the next. The classes are symbiotic," Brouillette says. "It is like one giant course really, though each is graded separately." And, of course, teamwork is given even greater importance in the third year, when students are divided into teams to conduct the big, 18-month concurrent projects, like the Monsieur TOC rocket experiment. In addition to linking classes to one another and integrating them with special projects, the department designed a just-in-time method of teaching math—introducing various math components only when they are integral to what the students are doing and learning, so that theory and technique are combined. "That way they get to use [the math] right away," Brouillette says.

For instance, Brouillette teaches a course in Newtonian dynamics, which is basically physics. In one class, he may show his students "nonhomogeneous second order differential equations," and in the next class, differential equations, the students will learn how to solve them. The following day, he will tell the students, "Okay, now that you know how to solve them, here is how to use them." The upshot is that "math no longer seems like a hurdle" to students.

Accepting the Mission

Brouillette says his ME department colleagues have, by and large, welcomed the changes and are happy with them. "Our work environment is much improved," he says, "and the quality of our students is extremely high." There is, he admits, less autonomy and more work now for the teaching staff: "We attend a lot more meetings to coordinate things." But the payoff is having so many smart students doing exciting things. And the extra layer of teamwork the faculty must now grapple with enhances its ability to teach students the benefits of working with others. There were some profs who initially opposed the changes, but the doubters have been overcome. "Many who were ferociously against it have either retired or changed their minds," Brouillette says.

The changes have also won kudos from other schools and industry. "We are now viewed as the best mechanical engineering school in the province of [French-speaking] Quebec," Brouillette claims. Because the rest of Canada is English-speaking, that language hurdle makes it difficult for the school to know how attractive its mechanical engineering program would be to applicants outside of Quebec. But Brouillette is confident that Sherbrooke's program has established a national reputation. "All the major universities in Canada have invited us in to give talks and ask us how we pulled it off," he notes. Sherbrooke gave a presentation last year at the University of Toronto. Jim Wallace, chairman of the school's mechanical and industrial engineering, says he came away impressed. "They really deserve a lot of credit, it was a huge undertaking and they've done a great job." Education and engineering are evolving, he says, and schools need to look for new and different ways to update curriculums. Toronto's department is larger—720 undergraduates—and the schools is not quite as self-contained as Sherbrooke, he notes. "We're still looking at ways [to change] . . . we like [Sherbrooke's] approach, it works for them, but we're not sure yet if it will be the right approach for us."

And although the first group of students is only now graduating, area companies have gotten a sample of what they can do by seeing them in action as interns. "The feeling is that our students get the job done and they don't screw around, that they know how to work," Brouillette maintains. A decade ago, a prevalent view within industry and among engineering academics was that turning out oven-ready graduates seemed to be mission impossible. But as the successful flight of the Monsieur TOC prototype highlights, Sherbrooke's mechanical engineering department has shown it can become mission accomplished.

What's In, What's Out.

A list of the new and old courses in the Université de Sherbrooke's mechanical engineering department may not fully show how drastic the changes are. For instance:

* The first three semesters' courses were once common for all engineering students; mechanical, electrical, chemical, and civil. Under the new regimen, ME students take only ME courses. There is still multi-discipline interaction, however, on projects. For example, the students involved in the test rocket project got input from electrical and civil engineering students.

* In the past, all courses were worth 3 credits each and each semester comprised five courses (15 credits). Now, course credits range from 1 to 4 and the number of courses range from five to eight, but the result is always 15 credits a term. This allows for some courses in math, communications, and teamwork to be spread over the entire curriculum.

* Courses are no longer autonomous entities, but are integrated with one another.

* To underscore the importance of design, the new curriculum has a major, concurrent design project assigned over the last three semesters.

* Previously, most math was taught by mathematics faculty. ME staff now teach most math courses, and the math is also interwoven with other courses.

* Because it's felt that the future of ME is intelligent devices, students now get two mechatronics classes and one mechatronics project.

* Students no longer take humanities electives; instead, they are given courses covering ethics, communications, teamwork, creativity, management, and professionalism.

To see the list of the new and old courses, visit Prism online at
www.asee.org.

TKG

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer living in London.