The challenges of integrated engineering education
I spent a couple days at Michigan State University (July 11-12) learning about integrated engineering education. The idea of integrated engineering education is to get students to see how the mathematics and physics (and other requirements) fit into their goals of becoming engineers. In part, it’s a response to students learning calculus here and physical principles there, but having no idea what role they play when it comes to design and solving real engineering problems. (Computer science hasn’t played a significant role in previous experiments in integrated engineering education, but if one were to do it today, you probably would include CS — that’s why I was invited, as someone interested in CS for other disciplines.) The results of integrated engineering education are positive, including higher retention (a pretty consistent result across all the examples we saw), higher GPA’s (often), and better learning (some data).
But these programs rarely last. A program at U. Massachusetts-Dartmouth is one of the longest running (9 years), but it’s gone through extensive revision — not clear it’s the same program. These are hard programs to get set up. It is an even bigger challenge to sustain them.
The programs lie across a spectrum of integration. The most intense was a program at Rose-Hulman that lasted for five years. All the core first year engineering courses were combined in a single 12 credit hour course, co-taught by faculty from all the relevant disciplines. That’s tight integration. On the other end is a program at Wright State University, where the engineering faculty established a course on “Engineering Math” that meets Calculus I requirements for Physics, but is all about solving problems (e.g., using real physical units) that involve calculus. The students still take Calculus I, but later. The result is higher retention and students who get the purpose for the mathematics — but at a cost of greater disconnect between Engineering and mathematics. (No math faculty are involved in the Engineering Math course.)
My most significant insight was: The greater the integration, the greater the need for incentives. And the greater the need for the incentives, the higher in the organization you need support. If you just want to set up a single course to help Engineers understand problem-solving with mathematics, you can do that with your department or school, and you only have to provide incentives to a single faculty member each year. If you want to do something across departments, you need greater incentives to keep it going, and you’ll need multiple chairs or deans. If you want a 12 credit hour course that combines four or five disciplines, maybe you need the Provost or President to make it happen and keep it going.
Overall, I wasn’t convinced that integrated engineering education efforts are worth the costs. Are the results that we have merely a Hawthorne effect? It’s hard to sustain integrated anything in American universities (as Cuban told us in “How Scholars Trumped Teachers”). (Here’s an interesting review of Cuban’s book.) Retention is good and important (especially of women and under-represented students), but if Engineering programs are already over-subscribed (which many in the workshop were), then why improvement retention of students in the first year if there is no space for them in the latter years? Integration probably leads to better learning, but there are deeper American University structural problems to fix first, which would reduce the costs in doing the right things for learning.