June 22, 2008
June 22, 2008
June 25, 2008
13.81.1 - 13.81.15
A Practice-Integrated Undergraduate Curriculum in Mechanical Engineering Abstract
Project-based and experiential learning is becoming increasingly important in engineering education. When recently surveyed, a majority of the students in a junior-year class at the University of Pennsylvania stated that they learned more from a particular course that had a strong lab component than from any other college class. This student belief may stem from the internal confirmation of understanding that hands-on work provides. Students seem to gain confidence when they are able to apply class material successfully to real-world systems, rather solving text book problems on paper. It is not yet clear where the critical learning takes place, whether in the lab or in the associated lecture, but it is obvious from our experience that laboratory work catalyzes student understanding and excitement about mechanical engineering.
Based on student feedback and our belief in the value of project-based and experiential learning, we have developed a practice-integrated mechanical engineering curriculum that spans the full four-year undergraduate experience. Our goal is to ingrain theoretical concepts and develop independent student thinking by gradually incorporating design into laboratory activities; by exposing students to systems and applications before developing all of the relevant theoretical concepts; and by motivating students to appreciate the importance and relevance of the theory by directly applying it in projects.
This curriculum incorporates three principal educational strategies. First, our laboratory classes provide a steady progression of skills and independence, from freshman through junior year. Second, many concepts are taught in a top-down framework, which exposes students to relevant physical systems and practical applications before they have been taught the specific theoretical concepts. Third, lecture material is formulated to support the laboratory activities, in contrast to the traditional approach where laboratory exercises are decoupled from or tangential to the lectures.
In this paper, we describe the specifics of our practice-integrated curriculum, using examples from basic engineering science classes that have been redesigned to try to provide a more meaningful learning experience for our students. A steady increase in enrollment numbers and positive feedback from student evaluations demonstrate the benefits of this curriculum.
Laboratory and project-oriented teaching1 is becoming more prevalent in engineering. Project- oriented instruction can ingrain theoretical concepts by challenging students to apply theory in design settings where they must think for themselves. We believe that it is projects that students relate to and indeed depend on in order to understand the importance of what they are taught.
Although basic science, mathematics, and the other principles taught at the early undergraduate level have not undergone significant changes, the applications of these fundamentals are changing quickly. Viewed broadly as paradigm shifts in technology, the pace of these changes is
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