The challenges of integrated engineering education

July 29, 2013 at 1:41 am 4 comments

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.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cecily Heiner  |  July 29, 2013 at 11:37 am

    I think you have to look at the role of engineering education in the context of the broader role of the university when evaluating them. I teach at a small, geographically isolated university, and we have an integrated engineering program. I actually think that it serves a purpose here. We don’t have enough students to sustain multiple engineering disciplines, but our program allows students to explore and discover what engineering is about, complete their general education(math and science requirements), and discover what their interests are. Ideally, they would then combine what they get here as an undergrad with a more specialized masters program. However, if they don’t continue their education, they learn enough to do general engineering work in the small towns that many of them come from. I think that is still a valuable contribution and skill set.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  July 29, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      Cecily, I think that we’re meaning different things when we’re saying “integrated engineering education.” You’re talking about integrating across engineering disciplines. I’m talking about integrating engineering with disciplines outside of engineering like physics and mathematics (and maybe computer science). What you describe makes good sense for all the reasons you describe. Integrated across-disciplines engineering education also makes sense, if you can afford the cost. My guess is that, for most large engineering-program schools, the benefits aren’t worth the costs.

  • […] Guzdial, in The challenges of integrated engineering education, discusses “integrated engineering education”, a curricular approach to getting […]

  • 4. Knud  |  March 19, 2015 at 6:49 am

    I’m not sure I agree about the nature of the problem


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