March Prism - 2002
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Teaching Toolbox

A Certain Standard

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

In addition to research, grad school programs need to teach their students how to communicate, work in groups, and solve problems.

In 1995, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy issued a report saying that recipients of graduate degrees must have more than research skills to be successful in academe or industry. Those graduates need broad multidisciplinary technical backgrounds, communication and interpersonal skills, as well as an understanding of the ethical context of research.

One would expect that graduates of advanced engineering programs would have higher-level skills than graduates of bachelor's programs. Yet since many graduate students did not receive their undergraduate degrees from ABET accredited programs, it is possible to complete an advanced program without having ever met the minimum ABET standards for undergraduates. We believe that all graduates of advanced programs should meet at least those minimum standards. We propose that graduate engineering programs voluntarily require that their graduates meet ABET's Criterion 3, including mathematics and science knowledge, design communication, teamwork skills, and an awareness of ethical issues. In addition, appropriate research-based outcomes such as learning experimental techniques and writing a thesis should be added to research oriented programs.

Although integrating these goals may reduce the amount of time that professors have to lecture, student groups will learn some of the material on their own and could even test each other. Within certain guidelines, it would also allow students in elective classes to choose some or all of the topics they want to study. Graduate students are mature enough to select topics and, by doing so, will learn and remember more. An added benefit may be that the workload for professors decreases since some of the work is delegated to students. Professors, of course, will need to adjust their teaching to emphasize planning and coaching instead of lecturing and performing.

They will also have to assess the students' communication and interpersonal skills and their ability to do creative research. Thanks to ABET, the assessment tools already in place for undergraduates can be applied to graduate students. For example, the combination of a student portfolio and thesis is particularly appropriate for students in research programs. Portfolios allow students to highlight their accomplishments in industrial internships, supervised teaching positions, and other activities.

In research-oriented graduate programs, students learn to become researchers by conducting research, receiving constructive feedback, reflecting, and revising. The process includes studying the research area, defining important but doable problems, writing short proposals, designing and conducting real or virtual experiments, interpreting results, revisiting the design and experimental steps, and eventually communicating the results. All of this takes place, of course, under the supervision of the professor. Advising and mentoring students in research allows professors to observe the student's growth over a
period of time, which can be very satisfying. (See the COSEPUP publication, Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend (1997) at for more information on mentoring.)

Except at universities where grad students are unionized, graduate students are classified as students, not employees. But even if they are paid, it's of the utmost importance that students learn how to conduct all aspects of research. Interestingly, although the research accomplished is important, it is secondary to the goal of learning how to do it. Professors need to be careful, though, and not exert too much control. Students may not learn as much if they can't make some of their own decisions. Thus, contracts with very specific goals and tight timetables may not have enough latitude to allow students to learn the entire research process. On the other hand, if the professor has too little interest in the project, the student won't receive the feedback necessary for growth. Whenever there is a conflict between the professor's need to publish and the student's education, the student's needs should come first. Good mentoring means providing the proper balance at different stages of the graduate student's development.

Re-forging the links between undergraduate and graduate education will reinforce the gains made in the undergraduate programs. And, as professors, we will have met the challenge of re-engineering our graduate programs.


Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at


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