February 2014

Featured Article

Experimental Centric Pedagogy: HBCU Electrical Engineering Programs Collaborate Together for the First Time

By Craig Scott, Mohamed Chouikha, Ken Conner and Yacob Astatke

The 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) electrical engineering programs have joined together to collectively improve the recruitment, retention and graduation of their students. They are focusing on providing an educational environment that more closely matches the learning styles and interests of their students through the utilization of ‘Experiment-Centric Pedagogy,’ With the support of the National Science Foundation, industry, foundations and collaborating faculty from institutions with a similarly strong commitment to advancing engineering education, their goal is to make a significant contribution to growing the U.S. STEM workforce.

Broader participation of all parts of our society in STEM careers is required to prevent the exportation of IT and knowledge-based jobs to other countries and to ensure a strong economy and a secure nation.  By the year 2040 the aggregate number of minorities in the US is expected to eclipse the population of the majority. Participation by this formidable sector of our population can substantially address the workforce needs if proportionate numbers of minority, and college bound STEM majors can be recruited, retained and graduated. For example, we know that currently under-represented minority students enter college with similar interests in majoring in STEM fields; however, the graduation rates are rather disparate[1] as shown in Table 1 below:

Table 1. BS STEM Completion Rates for All Racial and Cultural Groups.

4 Year  
5 Year  
Native American  16.8% 33.2%
Black 21.0% 35.6%
Latino 25.8% 44.0%
Asian American 44.9% 66.0%
White 42.6% 60.2%

African Americans have the second lowest college completion rate in STEM fields of all ethnic groups while the highest graduation rate is for Asians with a healthy 66.0% after five years. Moreover, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) represent only 3% of the academic institutions in the U.S. but enroll 12% of all students. Overall HBCUs produce 23% of all African American college graduates.  National trends and averages [1], indicate that with just an increase of 10% in retention of STEM students, three quarters of the goal of producing 1 million additional STEM workers by 2020 could be reached. 

HBCUs have long been leaders in producing engineers and scientists of exceptional quality from underrepresented minority groups, particularly African Americans. HBCUs leadership in higher education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has been evident throughout their history. Many of the HBCUs are associated in various existing collations but there is no single collation in which all of the Electrical Engineering programs can work together.  A common framework  is advantageous so that all of the ABET accredited engineering programs can share their systemic and now institutionalized efforts to increase the numbers of African Americans attaining engineering BS degrees. It also allows them to participate in other national studies that bring forth renowned practices to improve graduation rates.

A noteworthy recommendation from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is to pursue a more concerted effort using a variety of teaching methods, learning modalities and enabling technologies to retain under-represented minority students in STEM majors. In turn, this will yield a dramatic increase in the graduation rates of underrepresented minority students at HBCUs, which are predominantly African American.  This HBCU consortium is not declaring that it has a single methodology to fix all of the problems in undergraduate STEM education. What we do profess is that the current populations of students learn and acquire new knowledge quite differently from those of just one generation earlier or ten years ago. The essential component of this NSF sponsored effort will be the development, implementation, and expansion of an “Experimental Centric Pedagogy” (ECP) that is adaptive to a wide variety of fields and that will engage and stimulate interest by a large population of under-served minority students enrolled in the 13 engineering programs (see Table 2 )  that are members of this network of HBCU institutions.

Table 2.  List of ECP HBCU Institutions

Institutional Affiliation 
Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University
Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University
Hampton University
Howard University
Jackson State University
Morgan State University
Norfolk State University
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical University
Southern University and A&M College
Tennessee State University
Tuskegee University
University of Maryland Eastern Shore

Howard University and Morgan State University are the lead institutions with Digilent Inc. serving as a key industrial advisory member.  Other non-HBCU institutions and entities include: RPI, Wright-State, VA Tech, University at Albany SUNY and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. The ECP is being implemented at the various HBCUs to allow students of varying learning styles the opportunity to learn at their own pace and in their own environments by providing them an alternative way to acquire technical skills and knowledge both in the classroom and outside. Some of the various learning modules used in the ECP have already been developed, evaluated, and adopted.  In the early phase, the focus will be on improving the core Electrical and Computer Engineering circuits courses. Subsequently these courses will include entry level introductory courses for ECE majors, capstone design courses and introductory courses for non-ECE majors.  The ECP based learning modules are being shared with select faculty members of each member HBCU through a set of hands-on face-to-face training workshops (see figure 1) that will be held on the campuses of each institution every summer. The partners also conduct various online training workshops once or twice per semester using video-conferencing tools as a follow-up to the face-to-face workshops.  


Figure 1. Faculty and Chairs participate in a hands-on ECP workshop in Washington D.C. (left) P.I. Mohamed Chouikha in an animated exchange with workshop participants (right)

Often, there is latency between the identification of a problem and the technology that is required to help solve the problem. The interesting fact about the ECP is that it allows, for the first time, the true integration of technology with curriculum development and new pedagogies. This Engineering Network serves as a test-bed to determine the efficacy of these various modalities and aids in the development of strategies that employ “best-practices” for STEM pedagogy that appropriately integrate technology and learning.

The mood and institutional climate is changing among faculty, students and administrators about how they would like to teach and learn and in what environments. The integration of a technology that will allow faculty and students to learn in a 24/7 environment is a significant factor, however, a “disruptive –technology” like the ECP is expected to move this timetable forward even more. This Engineering network offers engineering faculty and freshmen level students an opportunity to participate in workshops, webinars and online classes and collaborate in the development of these learning materials.  Some of the interesting outcomes of this effort are 1) it allows for the increase in the numbers of students who have face-to-face contact with instructors by using different pedagogies and 2) it simultaneously   allows institutions access to technology that may not have the infrastructure to support the development of online courses and 3) it allows broader access to engineering courses that may not have been available otherwise. As the network matures, the sharing of curricula across geographic institutional lines will be one of the most effective ways to sustain the network and its impact. We envision that this new ECP effort will definitely enhance the learning experience of the engineering students enrolled at the HBCUs and serve as a model for the dissemination of STEM education to other institutions such as community colleges or even high schools.


[1] Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four Year Colleges (L. DeAngelo, R. Franke, S. Hurtado, J.H. Pryor and S. Tran) is available at: http://heri.ucla.edu/DARCU/CompletingCollege2011.pdf

[2] Report to the President, Engage to Excel: Producing One Million additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (2012), Executive Office of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

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