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Connecting Theory and Practice: Laboratory-based Explorations of the NAE Grand Challenges

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

ELOS Best Paper Nominations

Tagged Division

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.374.1 - 22.374.12



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Paper Authors


Lisa Huettel Duke University

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Lisa G. Huettel received the B.S. degree in engineering science from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, in 1994 and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from Duke University, Durham, NC, in 1996 and 1999, respectively. She is currently an Associate Professor of the Practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University, where she also serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Her interests include engineering education and applications of statistical signal processing.

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Connecting Theory and Practice: Laboratory-based Explorations of the NAE Grand ChallengesThe National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has identified a set of fourteen Grand Challengesfor current engineering research and practice. These include such diverse topics as reverse-engineering the brain, improving access to clean water, and enhancing virtual reality. In itsreport, “Educating the Engineer of 2020,” the National Academy of Engineering contends thatsolving the Grand Challenges will require more than just providing students with technicaltraining. An engineering education must, it is argued, produce graduates who combine technicalexcellence with a multitude of other skills including communication, teaming, ethical reasoning,and contextual analysis. Yet, without exposure to real-world applications in the context of atechnical education, students may neither develop these important skills nor gain sufficientmotivation to pursue careers in engineering. A key finding within the current engineeringeducation literature is that exposure to real-world applications – especially when presented in anactive, experiential learning environment – increases both student interest and pedagogicaleffectiveness.This paper describes the results of a pilot study in which students in an introductory digital signalprocessing course completed several Grand Challenge-inspired laboratory projects. TheChallenges were broadly interpreted and local expertise and resources were used to enhance theexperience. In one project, students investigated environmental sensors in the local“SmartHome” and followed up by analyzing actual solar and electrical energy usage data. Inanother project, students learned about the process of collecting and analyzingelectroencephalography data in a local neuroscience research laboratory, then performed theirown analyses using real data. Basing these projects on the Grand Challenges – while integratinglocal researchers and technical experts – provided a societal context and supported furtherexploration by interested students.In the pilot study, five types of outcomes were prioritized: improving student understanding,engaging students at a higher level throughout the course, increasing student interest in thecourse material, increasing the number of students who explore signal processing in greaterdepth, and increasing student satisfaction. Our assessment used a mixed-method approach,relying on both qualitative measurements (e.g., surveys of student opinions) and quantitative data(e.g., course performance and a pre- and post- concept inventory). Baseline data (e.g., studentsurveys) was available from previous years for comparison. It was found that students wereengaged at a higher level and were more satisfied with the laboratory experiments due to therealistic context provided. In addition, their awareness of the Grand Challenges and the role thatsignal processing can have in finding solutions increased. A number of students indicated thatthey plan to pursue more in-depth projects inspired by what they learned during the laboratory.  

Huettel, L. (2011, June), Connecting Theory and Practice: Laboratory-based Explorations of the NAE Grand Challenges Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17655

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