Case School of Engineering testing new curriculum for first-year students

Lev Pearlman, Staff Reporter

This semester the Case School of Engineering (CSE) is testing a new program for first-year students that will replace the current first-year requirements in a few years.

Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and Division of Engineering Leadership and Professional Practice Kurt Rhoads, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering, is the head of this pilot program. He is working to develop experiential programs for all engineering students.

Rhoads is also the coordinator for the first-year experience. Currently, CSE is piloting what will be the fall semester of their new first-year program. It consists of two 3-credit courses that will comprise the first-year engineering experience.

The main difference between the old curriculum and this new pilot program is the way that the material is taught. “The old way of teaching engineering is to lecture and then have students solve problems that the professors have made up for homework. The new way that we are teaching these courses is through solving problems,” said Rhoads. “So, we give students problems that may be real or are close to real problems. Then students solve them using the same engineering tools that they would have learned in classes.”

Research showing that this way of teaching improved learned led to the change. He explained that students are more motivated to learn with real world problems, and it helps students form communities because they are working in teams, so they start to feel like they are part of something bigger.

Rhoads continued, “The real-world problems help students learn problem-solving skills and design skills that they otherwise wouldn’t learn. We also want students to practice communication skills and negotiating with a client. In the second semester course, the students will work with a client that is a community entity, an NGO [non-governmental organization] for example, that has a real problem. Students are going to work with them to solve that problem. They will gain experience negotiating and interpreting needs solving that problem.”

Research indicates that women and underrepresented minorities are better retained in this style of teaching.

“Why does someone switch out of engineering?” Rhoads asked, “They start struggling in a class, and they say ‘well I am different from everyone else, and everyone else is doing well, and the reason I am struggling is that I am different from everyone else.’ They don’t have a community because they feel like they’re different, and they don’t have people around them to support them, and they struggle by themselves instead of reaching out to other people to help them.”

“So, by building a team of engineering students early on, and by forming a social network of engineers at the beginning of their education then all students start to feel like they are engineers and they gain confidence and skills by working on these projects and problems that teach them basic engineering skills.

This community and network help underrepresented minorities and women do better than they otherwise would.

However, the pilot program isn’t perfect. It is a complicated, evolving program that the school is still working on perfecting. Rhoads explained that “students need more programming practice than they get from just solving the projects that they had made, so we added an extra 50-minute tutorial session every week and are planning to keep that as part of the structure.”

They have also learned how to better pace the projects based on finding what is possible within a week or a module, Rhoads explained. The current structure consists of two-week modules that each focus on a specific subject. Each module is centered around a different idea or project, and there is a co-instructor for each module that works with Rhoads. The co-instructor is usually a faculty member from a different CSE department. There are six modules, each focusing on a different field: system engineering, electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering and civil engineering. Each program has a co-instructor, with the exception of civil engineering which is taught solely by Rhoads.

Each two-week module has eight hours of lab, twice a week for two hours, when the student is working on the problem. There are also two hours of lecture each week taught by the co-instructor serving as an introduction into the module’s topic and any theory that is necessary to do the lab.

During one module, students grow their own piezoelectric crystals. When the students apply a stress to the crystals, they generate an electric signal. These crystals are used in headphone microphones. Students test them and measure the electricity coming out of them and developed their own sensor to detect motion.

In another module, students make their own water quality sensor using an Arduino, then make their own water filter and tested the water quality before and after filtering. There is a competition and prize for the group that has the best quality of water.

The pilot program is consists of 17 first-year students from a variety of engineering disciplines.

“They are working together better,” Rhoads said, “and that survey results say that they are enjoying this style of learning.”

There has also been some very positive feedback from alumni and professional engineers. They like this new program and are excited that students are learning teamwork, presentation and problem-solving skills that they wouldn’t usually learn. Furthermore, they are very interested in hiring students that are learning these skills, according to Rhoads.

There is no set date for this program to be rolled out; the pilot will continue next year. However, when it is implemented, it will be mandatory for all first-year engineering students. Like other graduation requirements, it will only be compulsory for the first-year students who matriculate when the program is fully implemented.

Wonyoung Choi, a student in the pilot program said, “I really enjoy ENGR 131B. It’s a very hands on class, and it allows me to learn Matlab while also working in a team setting. Learning how to code in this way allows you to see how coding can be applied in different areas of engineering, and even what it would be like in an industrial setting. Personally, I think it would be beneficial for students to learn coding in this way because it allows for more engineering experience that will be encountered in the future.”

In the future, Rhoads hopes to see similar styles of teaching across all engineering classes and disciplines.