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+ By Mary Lord
+ illustration by mark McGinnis


Revamped curricula show freshmen what it means to be an engineer.

Stephen Belkoff couldn’t get his first-year students to grasp the importance of free-body diagrams in statics, a pivotal segment of their introduction to mechanical engineering. So the Johns Hopkins University associate professor reached for a real-life illustration: Kansas City’s 1981 skywalk collapse, a record-breaking structural failure that killed 114 people and injured 216. As the class fell pin-drop silent, Belkoff challenged the freshmen to place themselves in the pre-construction design phase and find its fatal lapse. “You have enough information — you can save lives with what you know now,” he told them. “The diagram screams there’s a flaw.” Electrified, the students plunged into an analysis of the forces and loads behind the disaster. Most eventually became engineering majors.

Forget forced marches through foundational math or slogs through theory. Students nationwide are gaining a freshman engineering experience their instructors never had. Some get tossed their first screwdriver and learn “righty tighty, lefty loosey” while fumbling to reassemble a cam shaft. Others devise products for destitute developing-world villagers, race mousetrap cars, or dismantle bicycles to develop a feel for physics. Chemistry boot camps, grade-free first semesters, even engineering-themed dorms are becoming more common. So are introductory classes, like Belkoff’s, that demonstrate how even limited engineering knowledge can be applied in important ways.

The varied offerings reflect a deep rethinking not only of the knowledge and skills needed to become successful engineers but of how to engage and motivate fledglings just getting used to college. All aim to get freshmen so excited about engineering they’ll develop what Susan Freeman, a first-year program coordinator at Northeastern University’s college of engineering, calls “grittiness” – confidence and determination to persist through the inevitable setbacks and demanding coursework ahead.

“Most students coming in have an ill-formed notion of what engineering is, and the traditional [introductory] course doesn’t help them get that,” explains Gary Gabriele, Drosdick endowed dean of Villanova University’s college of engineering, which recently overhauled its entire first-year curriculum.

Just as athletes must do calisthenics, freshmen still “have to do the calculus and physics to play the game of engineering,” says Kevin Hemker, professor and Alonzo G. Decker chair of the Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering department. “You can’t short-circuit the training.” But now, there’s more effort to coordinate core science with hands-on engineering problem solving that lets students apply the formulas and theories, and demonstrate mastery. Schools are recognizing that the traditional sequence of math and science capped by a senior design project scares many potential concentrators away. Too often students “have this bad first- or second-year experience in engineering, and they transfer out,” notes University of Maryland Associate Dean William Fourney. That’s something engineering schools can no longer afford if the country wants to produce more STEM graduates. While engineering has roughly the same proportion of dropouts as other majors, its students – unlike those in the humanities or other sciences – rarely migrate in from other fields, according to an extensive 2009 Purdue University study.

PhotosEven schools with relatively robust retention rates have sensed the need to up their game. At Johns Hopkins, where roughly 4 in 5 incoming students stick with engineering, “we were seeing the students not retaining information from freshman to sophomore year,” recounts Allison Okamura, who led the revamp of the first-year mechanical engineering curriculum. Sophomores had trouble applying first-year physics in second-year dynamics classes; freshmen couldn’t relate what they learned in computer class to engineering practice. Their paucity of practical skills gnawed at Belkoff: “These are all A students, and it took two days to build a shelf from Home Depot and get it ass-backwards.”


More Challenging

One model of a new approach is the Keystone first-year engineering program at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. “We ought to be doing this right, instead of treating freshmen like we don’t want them to be here,” Fourney, a veteran professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, recalls telling the dean back in 1997. Existing hands-on projects were “rinky-dink,” he thought. “If we’re going to do this, then let’s make it more challenging. It may be difficult, but when students do it successfully, there will be no holding them back.” Led by Fourney, the faculty refocused the introductory course around a capstone autonomous hovercraft design/build/test competition with an in-house textbook that integrates fluids, dynamics, electronics, and computer programming. It’s taught by senior faculty selected because they enjoy teaching first-year students, not because they drew a short straw. Even though budget cuts removed a bonus, professors clamor to make the roster. Reaching outside engineering, the program got the chemistry department to contribute top instructors.

At Villanova, engineering Dean Gary Gabriele told faculty to “figure out what would be the best first-year experience we could offer” if resources weren’t a problem. Enthusiasm grew, and produced a redesign intended to give students an intuitive feel or “kinetic” knowledge of engineering. They take protractors, stopwatches, and measuring tapes over to the student union pool tables to reinforce lessons in calculus and momentum. They design such products as a simple artificial kidney, or use acoustical devices to reveal cracks in concrete. Public speaking requirements help develop the future entrepreneur.

First-year innovation is nothing new at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a pioneer in project-based learning, but it keeps evolving. Take Assistant Prof. Katie Siek’s Games for Health, a first-year design course that culminates in a field-tested product or service to tackle a major public-health problem, such as obesity. Students must incorporate elements from every discipline, including environmental and computer engineering. Joseph Schmitz, a freshman last year in the University of Colorado’s aerospace engineering program, recalls jumping “blind” into Games for Health and “pretty much learning from our mistakes.” Results: an exercise-oriented version of the popular Super Mario video game played with a touch pad, and an exercise bike that lets riders play Tetris by pedaling faster.


Breaking down stereotypes

Freshmen often arrive clueless about navigating college life but ready to be challenged. Allison Okamura, now at Stanford, found they have “no preconception of what they can’t do. They’re willing to try anything.” Effective programs embrace this eagerness while catering to newbies’ distinct needs, providing mentoring, social support systems, and top teaching. They stress engineering’s importance to society, and provide ample opportunity to learn from failure. Students often get to choose projects that tap into their passion to make a difference – for instance, by devising cheap water pumps for impoverished African villagers. The intent of redesigning the first-year experience is not to persuade every incoming student to pursue engineering, says Old Dominion University’s engineering dean, Oktay Baysal, who oversaw the development of a common first-year curriculum, but “to inform them about engineering as quickly as possible and break down stereotypes,” so when they choose to major in it, it’s “not because your uncle said so, but for the right reasons.”

Doing all this well requires a shrewd reappraisal of the traditional core. Deciding what courses to drop can trigger turf battles. “It’s easier to move a cemetery than change an engineering curriculum,”cheerily acknowledges Villanova’s Gabriele. Johns Hopkins solved the sticky question of introductory physics by incorporating just a semester’s worth of key concepts into mechanical engineering while the physics department continues to offer circuits and other fundamentals. Project learning demands more faculty coaching time and extra facilities, including lab space. Games for Health meant Colorado’s Siek spent five hours in the classroom, held two office-hour sessions, and met for an hour with all 12 faculty members who teach the first-year design lab sections, with a separate TAs’ meeting on top of that load. She also spent time learning how to work the lathe and solder, and boning up on topics from adaptive technologies to math to help guide students through their projects. “I had to get my hands dirty so I could teach my students,” she explains.

PhotosPizza & scavenger hunts

Mentoring helps students contend with college pressures. “I have to plan in my head, OK, two weeks into the semester they’re going to start missing home, three weeks into the semester and there will be problems with learning disabilities and breakups” with girlfriends and boyfriends back home, Siek says. Later in the term, she will chide students about getting sufficient sleep and plan cookie breaks and pizza parties during the big crush to finish projects. Her mantra: “Everything is possible with pizza.”

To encourage office visits, Sheryl Ehrman, a professor in Maryland’s first-year program and chairman of the chemical and biomolecular engineering department, hosted a scavenger hunt to find her out-of-the-way digs. At Johns Hopkins, Okamura spent half a lecture on time management—“couched in terms of engineering project management.”

The University of North Carolina, Charlotte, combines freshman advising with a taste of professional practice. “It’s very much set up like a business,” says Patricia Tolley, assistant dean of engineering. Freshmen, who can choose to live in an engineering dorm, are called interns in a company and receive “performance evaluations” instead of just grades. Advisers include the director of employer relations and a senior designer from industry. Alumni and employers are brought in to explain how engineers work.

With the revamped curricula and advising structure has come a new emphasis on first-year teaching, once a chore often relegated to teaching assistants. Johns Hopkins, for instance, has freed mechanical engineering senior lecturer Steven Marra from research to teach full time this fall. At Northeastern University’s college of engineering, all six first-year gateway instructors are full-time teachers, “so you can be insanely committed to the success of the students,” says senior academic specialist and first-year coordinator Beverly Jaeger (see award, p.67). For Northeastern instructor Stanley Forman, a retired electrical engineer, the most important mentoring is “the part of the curriculum not on the syllabus” — life lessons, like cautioning errant freshmen they would risk getting fired at a full-time job. Such frankness goes down more easily because Forman spends the first three weeks of each semester talking one-on-one with students.

The role of teaching assistants is changing to become part of the mentoring process. “In our lab, they’re not called TAs or instructors,” says University of Calgary engineering graduate student Tiffany Veltman. “We call them coaches.” Colorado’s Katie Siek, a new fan of TA mentoring, invites freshmen to conduct research and pairs them with graduate students, giving them access to labs and shared work space.

Engineering tends to draw students with strong math and science aptitude but different levels of preparation and skills. “If you had your druthers, you’d put them in different classes,” says Lester Su, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins before moving to Stanford in July. Freshmen often have a fuzzy notion of what engineering is all about. “The premeds know exactly what they’re in for,” says Su. “They’ve all been to the doctor; they know what it means to see patients. But [engineering students] have no idea what it means to be an engineering professional or in academia.”

Old Dominion University grapples with both these problems. Its introductory curriculum presumes no high-level math or science and links foundational courses with engineering. Even a failed design project can underscore the importance of a particular physics principle, for instance, while a technical writing course can be shown to make a big difference in a chemistry lab report.

Responding to an evident dearth of practical skills among freshmen, many schools offer design/build/test experiences. “How are you going to design something if you’ve never built anything?” asks University of Virginia biomedical engineering Professor William Guilford, an Ohio farm boy. In his introductory engineering course, freshmen design, build, and race baby carriages sturdy enough to take the Appalachian Trail.

Johns Hopkins has its first-year mechanical engineering students take apart, reassemble, and ride a bike. Students scramble to retrieve ball bearings that an inattentive twist of the handlebars sent bouncing. They learn about forces by scrutinizing the brake system. Even tool-savvy students like Sarah McElman, now starting her fourth year in mechanical engineering, find that taking apart the gear system illuminates math ratios and how they translate into torque far better than any physics class. Helping freshmen develop this “physical intuition” for what it means to shift gears or huff uphill is critical to their future success as engineers, says Stephen Belkoff. “You can show them a PowerPoint,” he explains, “but if I’m holding a ball bearing, that little extra tactile feedback sinks the message into their heads.” Over the course of the year, freshmen dismantle internal combustion engines, wrestle with cam shafts, manufacture lacrosse balls, and race mousetrap cars. Just getting dirty “in and of itself is valuable,” reflects McElman.

Besides building practical skills, first-year programs tap into a growing desire among today’s students to help society. Ohio Northern University, for instance, asks teams to invent a product to fight poverty. Students study the topography, climate, and economic challenges of a struggling African, Asian, or Latin American nation. Many have found clean water to be a crucial need – and designed water filters to meet it. Others have turned trash into cooking briquettes.


A question of enthusiasm

Early results suggest that re-engineering the first-year experience has paid off in higher retention rates and greater student engagement. Before the Keystone program’s inception, for example, roughly two thirds of the 800 freshmen admitted to the University of Maryland’s flagship engineering school abandoned the major. Now, 90 percent return for sophomore year, with the engineering school graduating two thirds of its much better-prepared students in five years. Other institutions, like Old Dominion, that incorporated hands-on, team-based first-year design projects have seen similar jumps in retention.

A 2007 longitudinal study by a University of Colorado, Boulder team found first-year project experiences produced “significant confidence gains” in engineering skills among students. Colorado, whose integrated freshman design program has been a model for other schools, for instance, had a 64 percent seventh-semester retention rate for students who took the course, compared with a 53 percent published graduation rate for the engineering school as a whole. Notre Dame notched up 9 percent, to 99 percent of freshmen saying they intended to continue after taking the introductory course. Ohio Northern’s first-year engineering students typically win half the awards in the school’s annual entrepreneurship competition — an “awesome” feat, says first-year director Kenneth Reid, given that most participants are business and pharmacy upperclassmen.

Surprisingly, however, research at the University of Virginia cast doubt on whether project-based experiences actually improve freshman attitudes and “mindset” about engineering. Guilford, who took on the redesign of his department’s sections of the first-year program, made it “as hands-on, grimy, dirty, and design/build/test as could possibly be imagined.” Yet when Guilford and psychologists looked at an implicit association test designed to measure students’ zest for engineering, they found no difference between freshmen who engaged in conceptual design and lectures and his own super-engaged baby buggy builders. In fact, freshman engineering students and practicing engineers alike showed no strong bias in favor of their chosen career path. “Are we trying to achieve something that’s unachievable?” he wonders.

A better gauge of these programs’ merit, contends Johns Hopkins Mechanical Engineering Department Chair Kevin Hemker, comes from exit interviews with graduating seniors. Many say they appreciated the value of freshman design activities after tackling their senior capstone project. Indeed, trends are encouraging enough for momentum to build behind further innovation. Freshmen, get ready to rock and roll up your sleeves.


Mary Lord is associate editor of Prism.





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