oncampus

University of Oklahoma

Designing Sooner, Not Later
Borrowing immersion techniques normally reserved for foreign-language instruction and infant swimming lessons, a curriculum reform effort launched this fall at the University of Oklahoma's engineering school plunges budding civil engineers into design work in their earliest classes. The Sooner City project, named after the student-designed, Web-based virtual city that is the program's focal point, stretches across the four-year curriculum to unify students' engineering coursework.

Students begin determining basic elements of their own version of Sooner City in their freshman year, including population growth rate and the city's basic layout. As students' skills and experience grow, they will tackle increasingly complex aspects of the design, such as bridges and dams, water and sewer systems, mass transit, and geotechnical analyses.

Closing the Gap
"Civil engineering students typically don't do much design work until their fourth year," says civil engineering professor and primary Sooner City visionary Randall Kolar, "but it takes longer than a year to learn design." Consequently, recent graduates often spend more time on the job learning about design than their new employers would like, he explains.

That gap between industry expectations and educational realities hit home for Kolar years ago at his first post-college job, where he quickly discovered that four years of college and a brand new civil engineering degree hadn't adequately prepared him for the real-world design work he was expected to perform. "I decided then that if I ever taught engineering, I would focus on design," he says. Now the University of Oklahoma, with the help of funding from the National Science Foundation, is giving him the chance to put his idea into practice.

By engaging students in design from day one, and teaching them to tackle uncertainty and open-ended problems using the latest multimedia technology, the university hopes to produce engineers with more technological skill and problem-solving savvy, Kolar says.

Faculty members teaching courses in the sequence need not completely restructure them—a key selling point that Kolar says helped the project gain acceptance. Primary changes involve early introduction of a design component of the city, and focusing individual and group projects around that element. For example, a freshman AutoCAD class will incorporate preliminary layout of the city; sophomores enrolled in Strength of Materials might design building beams and columns or pump drive shafts; and juniors may find themselves developing water and wastewater treatment facilities in an environmental engineering course. In all, 14 required courses will comprise the Sooner City sequence, with 12 electives that also incorporate work on the model.

Students' Sooner City experience will really pay off in the senior capstone course, Kolar says. Students will prepare an electronic portfolio of their work, and also solve an additional, multidisciplinary Sooner City design problem suggested by practicing engineers, who will also critique the final designs.

Designing in Flexibility
For some early Sooner City modules that establish critical parameters, such as the city's general layout and population, students and professors will develop a consensus design from among all students' work. This has the advantage of requiring students to consider and evaluate approaches different from their own, while also providing a common starting point. It also makes evaluating later work manageable for professors. As students progress, advanced courses with more specialized tasks will allow more room for individual solutions, Kolar explains.

Throughout the life of the project students will design and manage much of their Sooner City Web pages themselves, using the laptops that are now an engineering college requirement. Students will use the same network-standard VRML coding (pioneered just three years ago by Silicon Graphics) found in many graphically intense computer games and other 3-D visualization programs.

Currently only the 50 freshmen enrolled in an introductory engineering and programming course this fall are participating in Sooner City. Roughly half are civil engineering majors—representing about half of the CE majors in the class of 2002. Kolar acknowledges that working the rest of the students into the program midstream will be a challenge. The curriculum will also eventually be modified to accommodate transfer students and others on atypical educational paths, he says.

Kolar expects that within five years Sooner City will be a requirement for all civil engineering majors at the university. "It is more work, more intimidating," he says, "but it is good preparation for an engineering career."

For more information, contact Randall Kolar at kolar@ou.edu, or see www.coe.ou.edu/sooner-city.

—Ray Bert

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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

New IT Degree In Sync With  Industry Need
Information technology (IT) specialists have become one of the job market's hottest commodities, with some projections indicating that as many as 1.3 million new workers will be needed within the decade. In response, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) has created a new IT bachelor's degree.

The program, which enrolled its first 50 students this fall, is designed to produce IT specialists for a variety of fields—from civil and chemical engineering to finance and law. Those in engineering, for example, will develop, install, and manage computer systems that support engineers' work, such as Computer Aided Design or Geographic Information Systems.

RPI's industrial advisory board, with representatives from more than 60 high-tech companies, last year expressed a "desperate need" for more IT professionals, explains Greg Hughes, RPI's vice-provost for information technology and a former vice-president at Lucent Technologies. The industry representatives also emphasized their need for employees who understand the intricacies of both specific industries and IT. Thus the idea for an IT degree with a specialized, mandatory minor was born.

Students take a core of 14 IT courses, many of which emphasize technical aspects such as computer organization, data structures and systems, and algorithms. Other courses such as The Politics and Economics of IT and The IT Revolution: Myth or Reality? focus on the field's interaction with and impact on society.

In addition to the IT core, students complete an eight-course minor in the specialization area. Students can pick from about 25 disciplines, several of which relate to engineering. In their final semesters, students complete a capstone project that requires them to apply their IT knowledge to a problem relating to their minor. For example, a student planning to work in chemical engineering might design the manufacturing process for a new biotech product, using IT skills to plan and manage the complex project; a senior interested in financial services could use a database modeling system to project stock growth based on companies' cash flow or R&D investment; and an IT student fascinated with law could network a firm's far-flung offices to provide quicker access to files and other information.

The substantial training in the secondary field should make graduates especially attractive to employers concerned with the impact of an IT specialist on the bottom line. "Without training in that second discipline, the industrial representatives estimated that they would have to spend several years and $50,000 in training to prepare their employees," Hughes says.

The already popular program is expected to grow quickly, and Hughes says there are plans to accomodate as many as 500 students by 2002.

For more information, contact Greg Hughes, (518) 276-2590; e-mail: hughesg @rpi.edu.

—Beth Panitz

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