January 2015

Current Views

By Barry Sullivan, Program Director, ECEDHA


Innovative Engineering Education: A 2014 Retrospective

I scan a variety of news sources on a daily basis, on constant alert for articles of interest to readers of the ECE Source.  As an avid reader, it's one of the duties I enjoy most.  In reviewing the articles I have earmarked over the past year, I found several related to innovations in engineering education, the theme of this month's issue.

One of my favorites among these articles is the Businessweek blog on “Why High School Students Should ‘Dissect’ Power Tools—Not Frogs.”  I know I referenced this one in an earlier issue, as I vividly recall the youthful memories of disassembled appliances it triggered.  I was determined to discover their inner workings, and concerned only after the fact with restoring them to working order.  Small wonder my mother developed a practice of saving broken and worn-out stuff for my post-mortem dissection to divert my attention from the still-useful ones.

It still surprises me a bit when I’m reminded that not everyone shares my fascination with how things work.  This often comes in the course of answering a question about something like the unusual noise the car is making, when I discover the questioner really isn’t interested in a short course on internal combustion engines.  Needless to say, it’s not the reaction I get when speaking to another engineer.

Several of the innovative approaches to engineering education described in these articles share a common emphasis on hands-on, experiential learning, something that clearly resonates with me.  This is often presented as a way to counter the perceived drudgery of the heavy math and science requirements of the typical engineering curriculum.  It’s also an excellent way to kindle students’ curiosity and foster development of their engineering intuition.

The examples cited in these articles range from the student experience at small, relatively young Olin College with its curriculum built around interdisciplinary projects, to an overhaul of the first-year engineering program at the venerable University of Illinois.  I particularly like the story about the “Design of Coffee” course at UC Davis, which begins with students taking apart a coffeemaker.  I wonder what their mothers would have to say about that.

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