October 2014

Featured Article

The Power of Partnerships

By Ken Connor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Probably the best part of the ECEDHA value proposition, at least as I see it, are the incredible opportunities the organization provides to develop friendships and partnerships with the wonderful people who fill the challenging, rewarding and, frankly, fun role of running ECE or similar departments. In my active years in ECEDHA, many heads and chairs helped me in countless ways to do my job better … much better than I would ever have been able to do alone.

The collaborative culture ECEDHA promotes is really wonderful and probably a little too unique in the business of engineering education. It shows what can be done if we think of ourselves more as a country-wide or world-wide discipline than a few hundred islands striving for excellence. It is too often the case that the talented faculty who work in our departments mostly develop and deliver the best educational experience they can without ever really interacting with their peers from other institutions.

As we all contemplate ways to improve the first year experience for ECE students, we should look for ways to build partnerships rather than each going our own way.

I have been very fortunate throughout my long career as an electrical engineering professor to have the opportunity to work in a wide variety of very effective collaborations. In my research on particle beam based diagnostics for nuclear fusion experiments, I got to work as part of teams at places like Oak Ridge National Lab, the Universities of Texas and Wisconsin, Nagoya University in Japan, and the Ioffe Institute in Russia. In fusion diagnostics research we built up an international group of people working on the same fundamental ideas. We created quite the mutual admiration society of like-minded people who worked together to promote our collective goals. However, no matter how successful we were or how much we helped one another, we only impacted a relatively small group. Our community at its peak was less than 100.

Recently, I have become part of even more rewarding partnerships as I have transitioned my research interests to engineering education which has the potential to impact everyone in STEM. I think the typical successful professor has a local focus for education and more of a global focus for research. ECEDHA shows what we can do when we find an activity that can impact our entire discipline and not just power, controls, communications or circuits, etc. as large as those sub-disciplines may be. Two of the partnerships I have enjoyed being part of show the potential for collaborative efforts that can impact the first year ECE experience.

Partnership #1: When Russ Pimmel was getting ready to leave his position at NSF, he conceived of a program where engineering faculty with common educational interests could be brought together in Virtual Communities of Practice (VCP) as a mechanism for spreading research based pedagogy (aka DBER in the National Academies Press report Discipline-Based Education Research). With the help of ASEE, funding was obtained from NSF to create a small number of these interactive, collaborative communities of instructors. Lisa Huettel (Duke ECE) and I were asked to organize the VCP for Circuits in which we engaged 20 active participants from ECE programs all over the US. 


We met online weekly for 90 minutes for nine weeks in Spring 2013 and followed up with additional meetings in the fall. We also shared ideas on an online portal with all technology supported by ASEE staff. Our schedule was reasonably aggressive. Our meetings addressed the following topics: Overview of Research-based Instructional Approaches, Learning Objectives and Bloom’s Taxonomy, Student Motivation, Teams and Scaffolding, Making the Classroom More Interactive, Simulation and Hands-On Learning, Assessing Impact, Great Ideas that Flopped, Course Design, Flipped Classroom and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The last topics were selected collectively by the group and included guest presentations from Cindy Furse (Utah ECE) on the Flipped Classroom and Bonnie Ferri (Georgia Tech ECE) on MOOCs.

The VCP interactions allowed participants to obtain feedback on their ideas and to explore new ideas that made it more likely that innovations they were planning would succeed. In most instances, the participants were working in something of a vacuum with few local colleagues trying anything similar. The group meetings, especially the breakout sessions, nearly always resulted in requests for additional information about ideas heard during discussions. Having someone who teaches a similar course want to duplicate or build on what one is doing helps promote success as much as hearing suggestions for improvement. There were many signs like these of a vigorous community of faculty working to improve the educational experiences of their students, with continued interactions between participants taking advantage of their expanded professional network while writing proposals, doing research and implementing research-based pedagogy in their courses.

The co-leaders also developed a solid online working relationship that served as a model for other VCP members. We did not know one another before this project and have only gotten to talk face-to-face at two ASEE meetings. In addition to sharing her knowledge of research based pedagogy with our group, Lisa also gave us an excellent opportunity to learn about the curriculum overhaul Duke underwent about several years ago for which the cornerstone was a theme-based introductory course entitled Fundamentals of ECE. Their efforts show how the first year experience can be improved as part of a major curriculum update. While she and her colleagues had reported on their work at more than one ASEE conference, the entire group got to know much more about details during our engaging online discussions.

Our experiences in the Circuits VCP were far from perfect. It was difficult to maintain the momentum of our interactions because many of the participants had their teaching assignments changed or were given new administrative responsibilities. There are many pressures that push the focus of good teachers back toward local issues. The most positive continued impact of this project has been in the growth of our personal networks, which I have definitely made good use of in my research.

Partnership #2: I have had the great good fortune to work with many remarkable people from the ECE departments at Howard and Morgan State, starting with the Mobile Studio Project and continuing with the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center. Because we found that Mobile Studio Pedagogy worked so well at these two great schools, we decided to introduce our ideas to the other HBCUs with engineering programs. This began with an Intel sponsored workshop in November 2009 in which most of the HBCU ECE departments participated. The growth of this community was nurtured at ECEDHA meetings starting in 2010, culminating in the creation of the HBCU Experiment Centric Pedagogy project, which received funding from NSF starting fall 2013. With excellent leadership from Howard ECE (Mohamed Chouikha and Charles Kim) and Morgan State ECE (Craig Scott and Yacob Astatke), the goal of this project is to create a sustainable Network of engineering faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities to focus on the development, implementation, and expansion of an experiment-centric instructional pedagogy, based on the Mobile Studio. The project is implementing this pedagogy in 39 different courses across the 13 HBCUs participating in the network and studying the effect of the implementation on motivation and retention. 

Morgan State, Tuskegee, Prairie View, Tennessee State Participants at December 2013 Workshop.

Student at Howard

HBCU ECP Partners:
Alabama A&M, Florida A&M, Hampton, Howard, Jackson State,
Maryland Eastern Shore, Morgan State, Norfolk State, North Carolina A&T,
Prairie View A&M, Southern, Tennessee State, Tuskegee

The initial focus of the project is on introductory circuits courses, with essentially everyone contributing and collecting common assessment data. The strong commitment to the project goals is also now expanding to address electronics (for majors and non-majors) and first year courses. With the able and continued assistance of Bob Bowman (RIT EE) and additional funding from Analog Devices, several partner schools are piloting Bob’s EE Practicum which provides a hands-on path for first year engineering students to explore the world of electronics using Digilent’s Analog Discovery.  Participants were introduced to the EE Practicum at the program’s second workshop held last summer. Like the Circuits VCP, the group also meets online every other week


Key to building this collaboration has been the vision and sustained efforts of the leadership group with support from the Smart Lighting ERC, NSF, ECEDHA, Analog Devices, Digilent, Intel and other organizations. This is the first major effort that brings together the great people involved in electronics intensive instruction at HBCUs and we hope it will lead to additional collaborations in research and education. Recently, ECEDHA members in the Mid-Atlantic Region have expressed a strong interest in joining this effort so some kind of affiliate membership is being worked on to broaden the sharing of experiences and content.

Both of these partnerships show what can be done if we invest the time and have the kind of networking and logistics infrastructure we enjoy through ECEDHA and ASEE.  The ECE community needs to build on what we have learned in these and similar efforts and find effective ways to create a community of practice for first year ECE experiences and get away from our traditional efforts based on local optimization. 

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